On Starting with Jesus

Rant ahead. I think of Anglican Christianity as being rather fixated on the idea that God became a human being and lived among us in Jesus (the ‘Incarnation’). This is the centre of our faith. It’s why we stand for the reading of the Gospel every Sunday. We don’ do that for any other reading of the Bible, and we certainly don’t do it for the sermon – but we do it for the Gospel reading. Heck, some of my Anglo-Catholic friends bow every time the name of Jesus is mentioned!

So I can take for granted that when I read John 1.18 – ‘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’ – Anglican heads are going to be nodding. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey said, “In God there is no unChristlikeness at all”. That’s what we believe.

Okay then! I’ve been researching confirmation courses and inquirers’ courses produced in the Anglican family (this is because I want to revise my [now out-of-print] 2003 book ‘Starting at the Beginning’). And here’s what I found! Some of the confirmation courses have great long screeds about the church and the sacraments, how to pray and so on, but they barely mention the story of Jesus at all! The best known inquirers’ course, the Alpha Course, simply assumes that people already know the story of Jesus, and just starts asking doctrinal questions about him: Who was he? Why did he have to die? etc.

Is this a responsible way for us to provide basic instruction about our faith in 2018? I know a lot of non-churchgoing people, and most of them are very unfamiliar with the story of Jesus. They certainly don’t have access to the background knowledge they need to help them understand the story (they don’t for instance, know what the word ‘Christ’ means, which is rather fundamental – if you don’t know that, you’ll certainly miss the point).

Surely, in 2018, anything claiming to be an inquirers’ course or confirmation course ought to be firmly based on the story of Jesus? Surely it ought to begin by re-telling that story, and exploring why his life and teaching is so important for us?

The worldwide Anglican Communion is currently emphasizing discipleship; they’re calling it ‘living and sharing the Jesus-shaped life’. So what shape is that, again? I ask, because recently two well-known Anglican bishops have each issued a suggested ‘rule of life’ to help their people follow Jesus more closely. But I haven’t seen much acknowledgement that Jesus has actually already given us a rule of life; we can find it in the Great Commandments (Mark 12:28-32), the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), among other places.

What would a Jesus-centred Rule of Life look like? Surely it would begin with the idea of seeking first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), and then explore the practical ways Jesus gave us to live that out. Things like avoiding anger and practicing reconciliation, being faithful in marriage, telling the truth at all times, turning the other cheek, loving our enemies and praying for those who hate us, practising prayer, fasting and giving to the poor, not storing up luxuries for ourselves, not judging others, and doing to others as we would have them do to us (see Matthew chapters 5 – 7).

What I want is a course about basic Christianity that is intentionally centred on the life and teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. We want people to come to know God. We believe that God is most clearly revealed to us in Jesus. So why isn’t our basic Christian instruction focussed, to the point of obsession, with the life and teaching of Jesus?

Note to self: We need to do better.

 

 

 

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‘There You Will See Him (a sermon for Easter Sunday on Mark 16:1-8)

For as long as I can remember, Easter has been a day full of joy.

Of course, when I was a little boy, the joy was greatly enhanced by the chocolate! We used to get great big hollow eggs in those days, with Smarties or some other candies inside! Dark chocolate, white chocolate, little mint eggs – it was all wonderful. Easter egg hunts, chocolate bunnies – we spent the whole day on a sugar high!

As I got older and came to a conscious Christian faith of my own, the day took on a deeper significance. But again, it was the joy that was highlighted. Jesus had died on Good Friday, but on Easter Sunday he was gloriously raised. The defeat of Good Friday was turned into the victory of Easter Sunday! There was no longer any need to be afraid of death; Jesus had overcome it, and he had promised that he would overcome it for us as well. So we sang the joyful resurrection hymns, and we set out the Easter lilies, and we dressed the church all in white. As St. Augustine says, ‘We are an Easter people, and “Alleluia” is our song!’

Which makes it particularly surprising that in today’s gospel reading – taken from Mark, the earliest of the four gospels – there is no mention of joy at all. What emotions do we see here? ‘They were alarmed’ (v.5). ‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ (v.8). This isn’t surprising at the beginning of the reading, when the women saw that the tomb was empty and didn’t know what had happened to the body. But apparently the message of the resurrection didn’t lessen their fears; it actually increased them. ‘They fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them’ (v.8).

Throughout most of human history, people would have had no difficulty understanding that terror and amazement. Terror is an entirely appropriate emotion to feel in the presence of a god. The ancient Greeks and Romans never knew what their gods were going to get up to. They were completely amoral and completely unpredictable, and the best and safest thing to do was stay out of their way. And some of the Old Testament stories give the same impression: Yahweh comes down on Mount Sinai in thunder and lightning and warns people not to come close to the mountain on pain of death. Even today we get that same feeling sometimes; when we’re walking alone through dark woods at night, and we feel the hair standing up on the back of our necks and a shiver down our spine. Something’s out there, and we’re not quite sure what it is!

Religion is all very well when you can predict it and control it! You know what time the service is going to start and what time it’s going to end. You know exactly when you’ve fulfilled your obligations to God, and then you can go home and relax and enjoy the fact that the rest of the day is yours to do with exactly as you like! You can live the rest of your week without worrying about God at all; after all, he usually stays comfortably far away, and he never cramps your style.

Until now. Now a body that you watched being placed in a burial cave is gone, and the angel seated there says he’s been raised from the dead. God isn’t far away any more – God has come frighteningly close. God isn’t just an idea in a book the preacher reads from on Sunday; it turns out that God is quite equal to the task of reversing the process of decomposition and breathing new life into a corpse. And now you’ll never know for sure where he is; he won’t stay safely nailed to the cross or sealed in the tomb. Now he’s ‘going ahead of you’, and you’ll forever be playing catch up with him.

It’s absolutely vital for us to recover some of this sense of ‘terror and amazement’ that the women felt. The God who created every single star and planet in this enormous universe has done something incredible! So what’s he going to do next? What will he do to Peter, who denied three times that he even knew Jesus? What will he do to Pilate and Herod and the Jewish leaders, who conspired to kill him? They all thought Jesus was the holy fool and they were getting rid of his foolishness, but who’s the fool now?

A real encounter with God is like that. It’s thrilling and joyful, yes, but if it’s not even just a little bit scary as well, I question whether it’s real. I think of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, when the children are asking Mr. Beaver if Aslan the Lion is safe. “Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he’s not safe! But he’s good!” And a few lines later Mrs. Beaver tells the children that if they can stand in the presence of Aslan without their knees knocking, there’s something very foolish about them! This is what Jesus is like in the gospels, isn’t it? He’s not ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. He loves his disciples, of course, and they love him – but I get the sense that they were usually just a little bit nervous in his presence, too – and rightly so!

This is what it means to be a Christian who believes in the Resurrection of Jesus. It means that we don’t have a comfortable God who we can control. It means we have a wildly unpredictable God who is constantly surprising us by doing things we thought he would never do. Calling women to be his witnesses, for instance, in a culture where the testimony of women was not even admissible in court. Calling them to be his followers in the first place, in a culture where married women weren’t expected to have dealings with men outside of their own family. Giving them dignity and respect, along with working class fishermen and Roman centurions and lepers and Revenue Galilee employees and all the rest. And later on, taking the message of the Gospel outside the nice safe borders of Israel to Samaria and Antioch and Corinth and Rome, where those nasty idol-worshipping pagans lived. What on earth was God thinking, doing a thing like that?

Before C.S. Lewis became a Christian, he spent months and even years struggling with his beliefs. Was he still an atheist? Was he an agnostic? Was he a sort of vague theist? Gradually he began to get the sense that he wasn’t the one asking all the questions here; there was Someone Else, another Presence in his life, a Presence that might want to question him! In a letter to a friend he said, “I’ve begun to realize that I’m not playing solitaire anymore; I’m playing poker!’ In other words: there’s another player at the table, and his presence is real!

I’m reminded of a story told by Anthony Bloom, a Russian Orthodox archbishop who was a medical student in Paris in the 1930s. At the time he was an atheist, but one day a priest came to speak to a youth group he belonged to. He listened to the talk and found himself getting more and more angry at what he was hearing; it was totally repugnant to him. But he wanted to check the truth of what he had heard, so he went home, discovered that the Gospel of Mark was the shortest of the four gospels, and sat down at his desk to read it. Here’s how he describes what happened next:

While I was reading the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning point. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the crucifixion of the prophet from Galilee was true, and the centurion was right when he said, ‘Truly he is the Son of God’. It was in the light of the Resurrection that I could read with certainty the story of the Gospel, knowing that everything was true in it because the impossible event of the Resurrection was to me more certain than any event of history. History I had to believe, the Resurrection I knew for a fact…It was a direct and personal experience.[1]

That’s what Resurrection means. Jesus is not just a nice story in a book. Jesus is alive and real and doing things in people’s lives. And don’t you dare think you’re taking him anywhere! The angel says to the women, “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (v.7). We don’t ‘take’ Jesus to people; Jesus is there long before we show up! Usually we’re the ones dragging our feet; the truth is that we’re going to spend the rest of our lives playing catch up with him!

So what message does he want to send to his frightened followers – the male ones, that is – the ones who fled for their lives while the women were standing near the cross? What message does he want to send to Peter, who denied three times that he even knew Jesus?

I think we need to remember how this must have been weighing on Peter’s mind. Just a few weeks before, Jesus had spoken these words to Peter and the other disciples:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it…Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels…” (Mark 8:34-35, 38).

That’s exactly what Peter was guilty of. Instead of denying himself and taking up his cross with Jesus, he had denied Jesus. He had been ashamed of Jesus and his words, and now he must have been fully expecting that Jesus would be ashamed of him. He had forfeited all right to be part of the disciple community. He had sworn that even if everyone else deserted Jesus, he would not, but what had his proud words come to? Nothing! He had promised, but he had not delivered.

Can you identify with Peter this morning? How many of us have made commitments and then not kept them? Commitments to spouses and children, parents and friends, fellow-workers, other church members. Commitments to God in baptism and confirmation. We’re all afflicted with the human propensity to mess things up, to break things, to break relationships, to break people. We’re called to love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, but we fall short every day.

So is a risen Lord good news for us? This must have been a serious question on Peter’s mind. Yes, of course he was overjoyed to hear the news, but a part of him must have been apprehensive about meeting Jesus again. What would Jesus say to him? Jesus had never been shy about upbraiding his disciples for their failures. Would Peter still be the leader of the apostolic band? Would he even be part of it?

Yes, he would. The angel says to the women, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him just as he told you” (v.7). He doesn’t just say, ‘his disciples’; he explicitly says, ‘his disciples and Peter’. Jesus embraces his failures and makes them his fellow-workers. There’s forgiveness for the past, whatever we’ve done, and a readiness to move into the future and a fresh start with Jesus.

In Mark’s gospel the meeting with the risen Lord is not described. The original text of Mark breaks off abruptly at verse 8. Verses 9-20 are not present in the two earliest manuscripts of Mark that archeologists have discovered. And they don’t read like the rest of Mark; they read like a summary of stories we find in the other three gospels, as if very early in the history of the church someone felt that ‘Mark’ was incomplete and needed an extra ending.

Scholars aren’t sure why this happened. Did the original ending get lost? Or did Mark actually intend his story to end in this very unsatisfactory way, with the words ‘for they were afraid’?

We can’t be sure, but it does remind us that reading this story can never be the end for us. We can’t just read it or hear it read and then close the book and say, ‘That’s interesting’, or even ‘How wonderful that he was raised!’ Something’s still missing; we still haven’t met him. “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (v.7). Galilee was their home, the place they’d grown up, the place many of them had made a living for years before Jesus came along. In other words, the place you’ll meet him is in the midst of your ordinary life – maybe even when you’re not expecting it, like Anthony Bloom reading Mark’s gospel and suddenly becoming aware that Jesus was standing on the other side of his desk, even though he couldn’t see him.

We may have an experience like that, or we may not. We may discover the presence of Christ in prayer, or we may find ourselves reading his teaching and finding that it grips us, and we suddenly know, not just that it’s true but that he’s true and real. We may meet with other Christians and find somehow a sense that someone else is in the room with us as we pray and read the Bible together. We may go through really difficult times and find ourselves strangely supported through it all, to the point that we just know a power greater than our own is at work.

There are hundreds of different stories of how Christians have encountered the Risen Christ. Some of them are dramatic, most are not. Some have come at the end of a long process of seeking him; some have come out of the blue, completely unexpected. We are all different, and Jesus very rarely repeats himself.

So this is the final note in this gospel story today. Fear isn’t actually the final note. The last verse says that the women disobeyed the angel and didn’t say a word to anyone, because they were so amazed. But we know they must have eventually gotten over that fear and opened their mouths; if they hadn’t, this gospel would never have been written! And we know that the amazed disciples did as they were told, and went to Galilee, where they did indeed meet Jesus. They had many other meetings with him, too – some in Jerusalem in the upper room, some by the lake in Galilee. They met him on roads and in houses; they met him in ones and twos, and in a group of five hundred or more. They never knew when he was going to show up.

So the final word of this gospel to us is expectancy. God has raised Jesus from the dead. He is going ahead of you. If you follow after him, you can meet him too. So follow him, do the things he has told you to do, and keep your eyes and ears open. Sooner or later, you’re going to get the surprise of your life.

[1] Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray (Paulist Press, 1970, p. xii).

Sermon for Palm Sunday on Mark 11:1-11

How do you change the world?

Some people try to change the world with a business plan. They identify a need, they come up with a product that meets that need, and they get out there and aggressively sell it. Along the way they may need to beat down a few competitors. They may need to be willing to take a few risks and work some very, very long hours. If they’re successful, the rewards can be amazing! The world is a very different place now because of Alexander Graham Bell, or Henry Ford, or Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg. But along the way there have been a lot of failed plans as well.

Some people try to change the world with a battle plan. They raise an army, establish an objective, and unleash the dogs of war. Maybe they’re would-be emperors out to enlarge their empires by force. But they might also be would-be liberators, wanting to set their people free. Either way, there’s going to be a lot of blood spilled on the way to their goal. And when they reach their goal, they’re not going to be secure. Victories won by military force can be overturned just as easily, in five years or ten years or a generation.

Some people try to change the world with a political plan. Maybe they’re the first people to articulate a particular political philosophy, like Thomas Paine or Karl Marx. Or maybe they’re just a charismatic leader or a good organizer, someone who can mobilize the party and fire them up and help them believe they can reach the goal – a Margaret Thatcher, a Nelson Mandela, a Tommy Douglas. Whatever their political philosophy may be, they can only put it into practice if they can gain power, which gives them the ability to see their vision turned into laws that people have to follow and policy they have to implement.

So you can change the world with a business plan, or a battle plan, or a political plan.

And then there’s Jesus. What’s he up to this week? How’s he going to try to change the world? What’s his plan?

Well, let’s look at the big picture. You see, we have a problem when we read the Bible mainly in little bits; we don’t notice the big picture, the way the story develops, the twists and changes in the plot. And one feature that has been fairly consistent in Mark’s plot up ‘til now has been that Jesus hasn’t been particularly up-front about his claims. Some of his followers have been using the word ‘Messiah’, but Jesus hasn’t used it himself – he’s used the more ambiguous phrase, ‘Son of Man’. His followers have wanted to spread the word about his healings, but Jesus has warned people not to tell anyone about what he’s done for them (a vain hope that turned out to be!). When he’s been getting a lot of attention in a place like Bethsaida, his disciples have urged him to stay around and enjoy his popularity, but Jesus has insisted on moving on to new territory. It’s as if he’s trying hard not to make too big a splash – as if he doesn’t want to attract too much attention from the Jewish leaders or the Romans. John has a phrase he uses for this in his gospel; he says, ‘Jesus’ hour had not yet come’.

But now all this changes.

Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem as pilgrims for the Passover festival. They would not have come by themselves; they would have come as part of a large party of pilgrims from Galilee, travelling together for safety as well as for fellowship. Their journey would have been about a hundred miles, and as far as we know, Jesus walked all the way. In fact, in all four gospels, we have no record of him ever having ridden anywhere, except this one story. After a hundred-mile journey on foot, he chooses to borrow a donkey’s colt and ride the last two miles, down into the city of Jerusalem. Surely he didn’t just do that because his feet were tired?

Notice the careful arrangements; obviously Jesus has thought ahead. He doesn’t appear to own a donkey himself, but he’s going to need one. Ah yes, there’s that man we know in Bethany – he’s got one we could borrow. So somehow Jesus has sent word to the owner; he’s arranged a signal by which his disciples can be known. And the disciples have made plans for the entry, too – the first century equivalent of the ‘red carpet treatment’ – coats and cloaks thrown on the ground, palm branches waving in the air, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest”’ This, by the way, was not the Jerusalem crowd saying these things; the most natural way to read the story is to understand that it was the pilgrims who came with him from Galilee. A few days later the Jerusalem crowd is going to have a different response: “Crucify him!”

So what’s going on here? Any Jewish boy or girl would have remembered the words of the prophet Zechariah:

‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth’ (Zechariah 9:9-10).

Here comes the king of Israel! But he’s not riding a huge great stallion or war horse like a conquering king riding into the city at the head of his army. He’s ‘triumphant and victorious’ says Zechariah, but then in an almost comic twist he adds, ‘humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (v.9).

Kings in the ancient world did sometimes ride donkeys, and it meant that they were coming in peace, not as conquerors. This fits in with Zechariah’s context – the king to come will cut off the chariot and war horse and battle bow, and he will command peace to the nations.

So this is what Jesus is up to. This is why, for the first time in his ministry as far as we can tell, he chooses to ride instead of walk. He’s intentionally acting out the prophecy of Zechariah. To ride a donkey in procession into Jerusalem was to claim to be the King Zechariah had promised.

So no more subtlety! No more ambiguity! No more trying to stay out of the limelight and avoid the attention of the establishment. Now Jesus is being intentionally provocative. He’s moving right into their face, making his claim. As John says, ‘his hour had come’. What comes next is even more provocative: he marches into the temple and starts throwing out the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial animals – acting as if he owns the place. After all – if he’s the king, he does!

Which makes what comes next even more remarkable. Everyone’s expecting a battle plan, or a political plan. What do we do first, Jesus? Go to the Sanhedrin and get their support? Raise up a Jewish army in the name of the Lord of Hosts to drive out the Roman legions?

No – how about we just go into the temple, sit down and start teaching people? Let’s heal people, and talk about the kingdom of God. And at the end of the week, let’s refuse to hide; let’s make it easy to be arrested by the establishment. Let’s submit to mocking, and whipping, and torture, and a rebel’s death on a Roman cross. Instead of grasping for political and military power, let’s allow ourselves to be defeated by the powers that be. And instead of calling down vengeance from heaven, let’s forgive them instead. That’s the plan, boys; glad you asked!

I’m sure Jesus was as disturbed by the abuses of the Romans and the Jewish authorities as anyone else, but he knew they weren’t the most important enemy. The most powerful enemy humans face is inside us: 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 energizes every evil dictator and tyrant who’s ever lived. This is the enemy that must be defeated before injustice and oppression can be broken forever.

Jesus chose to defeat this enemy by the power of love, not the love of power. His whole life was a demonstration of the fact that God is love, and that God loves everyone he has made. God loves us so much that he is willing to come among us, teach us the way to know him, and give us the power to follow him. And when we get mad at him for doing this – when we reject his love – he still refuses to take revenge or force us to follow him. He overcomes evil with good, and hatred with love.

So Jesus doesn’t have a business plan, or a battle plan, or a political plan. Jesus has a love plan. It begins with God reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us, but forgiving us. And it continues as we, the followers of this strange new King, choose to do the things he taught us to do: loving one another, refusing to treat people as enemies, forgiving them, serving them, laying down our lives for them. This is the love that changes the world.

“That’s a tall order!” you say. Yes, indeed! Three chapters before in Mark’s gospel, Jesus 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 the way of costly love. It’s always hard – but it’s the way Jesus has chosen to spread the Kingdom of God.

So let’s resolve again to follow the example of Jesus – speaking the truth in love, and walking the hard road of the cross in love for others. Jesus doesn’t have a business plan, or a battle plan, or a political plan – he has a love plan. It’s the only plan he has, and there’s a place in it for every one of us, as we walk the way of the Cross with him.

2018 RLT #27: ‘Father’

I think we can probably take it for granted that the prayer life of Jesus was formed by the psalms. In one respect, however, he departed radically from that model: his name for God. In the psalms God is usually addressed by such titles as ‘Yahweh God of Israel’, or ‘God the King’, or ‘Yahweh my rock’. Very rarely, however, is any sort of parental metaphor used. Jesus, however, takes the parental metaphor and makes it absolutely central to his way of understanding and addressing God. ‘Father’ is not just one title for God among many for Jesus. In fact, there is only one time in the entire gospels where he talks to God using any other name, and that is when he was nailed to the cross and was quoting from the psalms: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’.

So Jesus’ way of addressing God is entirely simple and unpretentious. He doesn’t make speeches to God; he simply comes to God and says, ‘Father…’ And he encourages us, his followers, to do the same. ‘One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples”. He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father…’ ” ‘ (Luke 11:1-2a, NIV).

The Anglican liturgical tradition in which I was raised has a long history of making beautiful poetic speeches to God (‘O Lord our Heavenly Father, Almighty and Everlasting God…’). Many of us Anglicans have been intimidated by the poetic genius of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and his Book of Common Prayer. But Jesus does not encourage us to make speeches to God. Nor does he appear to be in favour of long prayers. He encourages a simple and unpretentious approach to God.

What’s the most important thing we can know about God? That he is our parent (which means that he loves us more than we love ourselves; that he will die rather than not provide for our needs; that he is a role model for us; that he guides and teaches us, and that he disciplines us because he loves us). We can be entirely secure and confident in his love for us. Children who are secure in their parents’ love don’t make speeches to them; they talk to them naturally, simply, and without any sort of pretention.

“When you pray, say: ‘Father’ “. What a privilege!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Does Jesus Think He Is? (a sermon on Matthew 21:23-32)

On Friday night we had the opening service of our diocesan synod at All Saints’ Cathedral. Earlier in the evening in the foyer of the cathedral there was a lot of activity – registration tables, a light supper, some displays and information for delegates to take in. People were milling around, many of them rather smartly dressed, and as we got closer to the starting time some people in robes started to appear. There was the bishop, wearing her cope and mitre, obviously a rather important person. Eventually the service began with an opening procession into the cathedral – the choir, the leading clergy of the Diocese, followed by the bishop. In processions like this, the person who comes last is always the most important person, and in this case there was no doubt who was in charge!

Now – imagine that about half an hour before the service a well-known religious rebel comes into the cathedral foyer. He’s not ordained, has never been to any seminaries, doesn’t have any official position in the Diocese of Edmonton, but he’s got a name for clever teaching and spending time with the poor and needy. Imagine he sets up a display in the foyer with a microphone and starts addressing the people as they come in to register for synod. He just assumes he’s got the right to do this, even though he hasn’t asked permission beforehand. Pretty soon a huge crowd is gathering around because he’s a good speaker and he knows how to get their attention. Before long no one is paying any attention to anything else going on, and archdeacons and cathedral deans are looking nervously at their watches, wondering when he’s going to stop so that they can begin the opening service of Synod. And the question on the minds of all the people in authority is the natural one: Who does this guy think he is, waltzing in here like this and taking over our Synod service?

And that’s the question in the back of people’s minds in our gospel for today. We’re close to the end of Jesus’ ministry; the cross is only four days away. For months rumours about Jesus have been buzzing around. He’s a wonderful teacher who can hold the attention of an enormous crowd. He’s got the common touch; ordinary people love listening to him. He’s done hundreds of amazing miracles, healing sick people and even raising the dead. He’s broken all sorts of barriers, spending time with women and children and Roman soldiers and tax collectors and sinners.

So who does he think he is? A lot of people see him as a prophet, sent by God with a message for Israel at this point in her history, but some of the leaders see him as a false prophet, trying to make a name for himself and leading Israel astray. A true prophet wouldn’t be so soft on outcasts and sinners like Jesus is! Some people are even using the word ‘Messiah’ – the king like David who would set God’s people free from their enemies and establish God’s righteous kingdom on earth. But Jesus wasn’t behaving like a politician or a king; he wasn’t raising an army or proposing policies or leading a rebellion against the Romans. He himself used the term ‘Son of Man’ for himself – a very ambiguous phrase. It might just mean ‘human being’, but in the book of Daniel there’s a mysterious passage about ‘one like a Son of Man’ who comes before the throne of God and is rewarded with power and authority and an everlasting dominion over all the people on earth. Is that who Jesus thinks he is? And if it is, is he quite right in the head?

Then comes what we now call ‘Palm Sunday’. Jesus and his disciples are on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover; they’ve been gathering a crowd as they’ve made the journey from the north, and when they get to Jerusalem Jesus stages a triumphal entry into the city right out of the Book of the Prophet Zechariah:

‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (Zechariah 9:9).

So Jesus rides into the city on a donkey’s colt; his disciples cut palm branches and shout ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ A huge crowd gathers to greet him. Once he’s in the city he goes straight to the Temple and totally disrupts it; he turns over the tables of the money changers and drives out all the buyers and sellers, quoting Jeremiah to them: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers’ (Matthew 20:13).

And for some reason the authorities do nothing. Maybe it’s the presence of the huge crowd; maybe they sense that if they try to oppose this popular young prophet, they might be taking their lives in their hands, even though there are Roman guards to back them up, just a stone’s throw away in the Fortress Antonia. The last thing they want is a riot in the temple courts; the Romans will not be pleased if that happens. So the leaders fume, and do nothing.

And now it’s Monday morning, and this insufferable young man is back in the Temple again! There’s already a crowd there, but the leaders can’t restrain themselves any longer. There he is, sitting down in the Temple courts with a huge crowd listening as he teaches them. He’s acting as if he owns the place! So the chief priests – the ones who really own the place! – march up to him and ask the question, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23).

Now, you’ve been listening to Jesus for a while in this church. Tell me, how likely is he to give a direct answer to a direct question? Not very likely, right?

Except here, there’s method in his madness. You see, the question they really want to ask him is “Are you the Messiah?” If they can get him to say, ‘Yes’, then the Romans will be on board with their agenda right away, because ‘Messiah’ is a political word. The King who sets God’s people free and restores justice and righteousness to Israel is not a popular idea among the oppressors! Any would-be Messiah is deadly dangerous, and the Romans had a lot of practice in crucifying them without mercy.

So what they really want Jesus to say – in public, with hundreds of witnesses – is “You ask me by what authority I’m doing this? Well, duh! Can’t you see? I’m the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed king of Israel. God has sent me to set his people free. And you know what, I just happen to be a descendant of the royal house of David, so that’s a nice piece of serendipity, isn’t it?”

But Jesus is too smart by far to do that. He knows there’s a cross ahead for him, but not yet; he’s got a few more things he wants to say and do first, so he’s not about to deliver himself into their hands.

And so he says, “Let me ask you a question in return. When John the Baptist was baptizing people – was that just something he made up out of his own head, or was it God’s work? Was his baptism from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

I can imagine the chief priests and elders looking around nervously at the crowd. John the Baptist had been a very popular figure, and most of the common people saw him as a true prophet of God. But he had been arrested and executed by King Herod Antipas, who was in bed with the Romans, and this had left a very bad taste in most people’s mouths. For the chief priests and elders to denounce John as a false prophet in front of that whole crowd might have been to sign their own death warrant. Jerusalem crowds could be very volatile, and who know whether Jesus would stir them up or not?

So answering their question with this question was a very smart move on Jesus’ part. But it wasn’t just arbitrary. He had a personal connection with John the Baptist. If you remember back at the beginning of the gospel story, Jesus had joined the crowd around John at the Jordan River, and had gone down into the water himself to be baptized. And do you remember what happened when he came up out of the water? Yes, the Holy Spirit came down and rested on him, ‘anointing’ him with God’s power and authority for his ministry. The word ‘Messiah’ means ‘anointed one’. So if Jesus truly is the Messiah, God’s anointed king, then John the Baptist is the one through whom the anointing came. So if the chief priests and elders could not recognize the authority of John – if they couldn’t conceive of the possibility that he might have been speaking for God – then they were unlikely to be able to recognize the authority of Jesus either.

But there’s another piece of evidence Jesus is ready to point to, and so he tells the little story of the two sons. Their father goes to the first son and says “Son, will you go and work in my vineyard today?” “No way!” the young man replies – but later on he changes his mind and goes. The father then goes to his second son. “Son, will you go and work in my vineyard today?” “Sure!” the young man replies – but does nothing about it. His obedience is all words, not actions.

“You guys are like that second son”, Jesus said to the chief priests and elders. “John the Baptist came to you in righteousness with a challenge from God – to repent – but you ignored him. But these tax collectors and prostitutes believed him, and they turned from their sins and turned to God because of his preaching. They’re like that first son, the one who refused to obey but later changed his mind and went. And that’s how we know that John’s ministry was from God: he touched the lives of people and brought transformation”.

And this is where this parable hits home for us today, isn’t it?

After all, we believe in Jesus. We’re pretty sure we’ve got the right answer to that question “By what authority are you doing these things?” We know who he is! In our epistle for today Paul says,

‘Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:9-11).

By what authority is he doing these things? By the authority of God! We know that in Jesus God has come among us in a unique and powerful way. When Jesus speaks, we hear the voice of God through him. This is what we Christians believe. In a few moments we’ll stand up together and announce it yet again: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord”.

And we’ve heard his word of grace. Remember, ‘grace’ is the Bible word for God’s unconditional love. We don’t have to earn it or deserve it. We’re not disqualified from it because our skin’s the wrong colour or we were born in the wrong country. This ‘amazing grace’ comes even to ‘a wretch like me’ – even though I fall far short of God’s plan for me. I might not look outwardly like one of those tax collectors and prostitutes, but there are lots of less visible ways that I haven’t loved God with all my heart and my neighbour as myself.

But that’s okay. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). What we’ve done – or failed to do – in the past does not disqualify us from receiving God’s invitation. God starts with everyone right where they are. “Come to me”, he says, and that invitation goes out to everyone.

But we do have to come. We can’t just sit there and say, “Isn’t it wonderful? God sent Jesus to call us back to him! He’s the real Messiah, you know!” – and then do nothing about it!

This is particularly important for those of us here who have made baptismal promises – and most of us here have made those promises, either at our own baptisms or someone else’s. In those promises we committed ourselves to turning away from sin and evil. We said we would turn to Jesus, put our whole trust in his grace and love, and follow him as our Lord. In other words, his teaching and example would be the pattern for our lives, and we would commit ourselves to learning to follow that pattern – always knowing that when we failed, his forgiving love would be ready there to catch us.

But here’s the danger for liturgical Christians like us: these words on the page can be – well, just words on the page. We can say them with our lips, but not believe them in our hearts or live them out in our lives. And if we do that, they’re not really worth anything.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about people who try to follow Jesus and fail – we all do that. I’m talking about people who mouth words with their lips but have no intention of practising them. People who stand for the gospel reading on Sunday and say ‘Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ’ when they hear the words of Jesus, but then go out on Monday with a knowing smile and say to themselves “Well, Jesus’ teaching doesn’t really work in the business world, does it?” Or, “I’ll get to it one day – but today is not that day!”

Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount? Who is the wise man who builds his house on the rock? Just the one who hears the words of Jesus, or recites them? No: the one “who hears these words of mine and acts on them” (Matthew 7:24). May God give us grace today to do that.

‘Thirsty for God’ (a sermon on John 7.37-39)

Tonight I’m going to be flying across the Atlantic to the U.K., but the first time I made that journey I was going in the other direction; it was September 1967, I was nine years old, and we were travelling by ship. Tonight it will be a journey of about eight and a half hours, but then it took five days to go from Liverpool to Montreal. When I think back on that, I realise again how vast that Atlantic Ocean is. That’s a huge amount of water!

Of course, centuries ago those trips took even longer. In the days of sail, ships were totally dependant on the prevailing winds. Sometimes, in calmer climates than the north Atlantic, ships would lie still for weeks on end because there was no wind. And sometimes, tragically, they ran out of drinking water during those times, and people began to die of thirst. It was this kind of situation that gave birth to the famous line in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’. Some people were so crazy with thirst that they did try salt water; of course, this only made things worse, and they died even sooner because of it.

Psalm 42:1-3 says:

‘As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”’.

In this passage of scripture, ‘thirst’ is used as a powerful image for our deep human longing for God. This longing isn’t satisfied by ideas about God, talk about God, or membership in organizations that work for God. It’s a longing for God himself, and for personal contact with God. When we have this longing, we realise that all the God-substitutes we so desperately embrace amount to nothing but salt-water; they only increase our deep inner thirst for the true and living God.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus uses this metaphor of thirst. The seventh chapter of John’s Gospel is built around the annual Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. This was a very popular feast, a kind of harvest festival. Over the years it had also acquired a sub-theme of longing for the end of this present evil age – the great final harvest, when God will bring in the Kingdom and the new age of his righteousness will begin – the time when the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all people.

Every day during the Feast of Tabernacles, water was drawn from the Pool of Siloam and carried in procession to the Temple while the words of Isaiah 12:3 were sung: ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’. Also the prophecy of Zechariah 14:8 would be read: ‘On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter’. This verse is a summary of a longer prophecy in Ezekiel 47: the prophet sees a vision of a river springing up in the Temple and flowing out into the desert, bringing new life and fruitfulness wherever it goes.

In this context – surrounded by all this imagery of water – listen again to the words of our Gospel reading:

‘On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now this he said about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified’ (John 7:37-39).

It’s as if Jesus is saying to his hearers, “All week long you’ve been enacting symbols about God’s salvation coming like water onto a thirsty ground. Well, I am the reality those symbols point to. Come to me, and drink deeply from those wells of salvation”.

 

Listen to these words from the prophet Jeremiah:

‘Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit…
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water’ (Jeremiah 2:10-11, 13).

God’s people turned from the true and living God who was like a stream of fresh water, and instead they made idols for themselves that were like cracked cisterns, unable to hold water. This was their version of the becalmed sailors drinking salt water – it couldn’t satisfy. And today people still turn to idols – God-substitutes that claim to be able to fill God’s role, but actually they can’t.

One of the most common, of course, is materialism. We spend years trying to accumulate more and more stuff, even though the ‘more and more stuff’ we’ve already acquired hasn’t satisfied us. The one who dies with the most toys doesn’t win – they just die.

A second very common idol, often linked to the first one, is success. A lot of people gauge their self-worth with this one: if I can just get ahead in my career, so everyone will see I’m doing well, then I’ll find the satisfaction I’m looking for. Sometimes the worse thing that can happen to these folks is to actually achieve that goal; they feel satisfaction for a few days, maybe, but finally they realize it isn’t giving them the lasting happiness they were hoping for. They still haven’t found what they’re looking for – whatever it is.

A third idol that’s quite common is the liking and approval of others. This is especially seductive to people who have problems with self-esteem. ‘If I can just get people to like me and approve of what I’ve done, then that inner ache will go away; I’ll be able to relax and know I’m a worthwhile person, because other people like me. But wait – some of ‘me’ isn’t very likeable, so I’ll just hide my shadow side and pretend to be something better than I really am, so I can get people to like me’. This is the lie the idol persuades us to believe, but it never works. We still feel the emptiness, the spiritual thirst – and we also carry around the burden of having to continually fool people about who we really are.

Sad to say, the institutional church can also become an idol for some. The church is meant to be a community of faith, gathered around the living Lord Jesus Christ. However, some people have never made a connection with the risen Lord, and so they turn to the church instead. It’s unfortunately possible to go through all the motions of Christianity – church attendance, baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion – but stop there, without making a real connection with the risen Christ.

I think this might be the most insidious idol of all, and I’ll tell you why. People who worship this idol think they’ve tried Christianity and found it wanting. But in fact they’ve only tried ‘churchianity’. What they’ve had is the spiritual equivalent of a vaccination. You know how a vaccination works; you inject a tiny quantity of the disease into people’s bodies, and this awakens their immune system to protect them against the real thing when it comes their way. In the same way, people who worship the idol of ‘church’ have taken a tiny bit of Christianity to protect themselves against the real thing.

All these God-substitutes are nothing but salt water. In the end, they will only increase our spiritual thirst. Maybe you’re feeling that thirst today. Maybe you’re thinking “Yes, I know that nothing can take God’s place, and in fact I’m really thirsty for him”. Good – let’s think about drinking!

 Jesus says, ‘“Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now this he said about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’ (John 7:37b-39a). So the way to quench our thirst for God is to come to Jesus and drink. When we believe in Jesus – that is, when we put our faith, our trust, in him – he gives us the Holy Spirit who becomes to us like a river of living water in our hearts.

You might ask “How does this happen? How do I come to Jesus and drink?” First, we need to know that all followers of Jesus have the Holy Spirit living in them. Paul says, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12:13). If you aren’t sure whether this verse applies to you, you can be sure. Simply pray, committing yourself to Christ in faith and asking him to live in you by his Holy Spirit. Then, if you haven’t been baptized at some point in your life, get baptized. If you’ve already been baptized, as most of us have, then the commitment of faith is all you need to complete the process.

Some people find this idea of a commitment of faith intimidating; they’re not sure they have enough faith to make it work. Don’t worry about that; Jesus once said that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, that’s enough. Here’s how I see it. Imagine I’ve made a series of poor choices in my life and as a result I’m experiencing significant health issues. So in desperation I make an appointment to see my doctor. He examines me, and then he sits me down and says, “I know how we can get you out of this mess and back to heath. It’s going to take a while, but we can do it. Will you let me help you?”

How do you reply to that? I think the simple word “Yes” is enough, don’t you?

And this is where we’re at. We find ourselves struggling to connect with God and find the way of life we were designed for. We’re addicted to all sorts of negative behaviours and we know we’re chasing after the wrong things. So we go to Doctor Jesus and ask him to help us. His reply is, “Yes, I can help you. Will you follow me?” Faith is simply saying “Yes” to that invitation. That’s all it takes to get the ball rolling.

But of course, that’s not all it takes to continue the process. If we want to have our spiritual thirst quenched – to go back to the original metaphor – there needs to be a daily drinking. Let me suggest a couple of things for you.

First, pray daily to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Yes, we all have the Holy Spirit, but we need to ask him each day to fill us. I once heard a good illustration of this. An old fashioned gas furnace has a little pilot light burning inside, and that’s vital. That’s like the gift of the Holy Spirit we were each given when we became followers of Jesus. But that won’t be enough to heat the whole house! We need to turn up the thermostat so that the pilot light fires the burners. And in the same way, we need the Holy Spirit to fill us to overflowing.

Sometimes this happens in a dramatic way. That’s how it was for the apostles in our first reading today, when they experienced tongues of fire and speaking in other languages, and it was so dramatic that a crowd of people gathered to see what was going on. But it doesn’t always happen in a dramatic way – in fact, that’s not all that common. Mostly it’s quiet: a gentle sense of connection with God – a joy that’s there in the background even when we don’t notice it – the experience of finding ourselves equal to challenges we were sure would be too much for us.

So before you start each day, take a few minutes to pray and ask God to fill you afresh with the Holy Spirit for the day ahead. You’ll be surprised how much difference that simple prayer can make.

Then there’s the daily experience of keeping in step with the Spirit. In our pew Bibles, Galatians 5:16 is translated as ‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’. But the original Greek says ‘Walk in the Spirit’, and the NIV has the lovely translation ‘Keep in step with the Spirit’. I love that! It gives me the sense of the Holy Spirit as a companion walking beside me. I’m not sure which way to go, but the Spirit knows, and if I watch and listen, the Spirit will guide me.

One way the Spirit will guide me is through the Scriptures, especially the teachings of Jesus. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that 90% of the guidance I need for living my daily life is already there in the Scriptures. There are lots of stories of people setting bad examples to avoid! And sometimes we come across good examples to follow. There are simple commands that revolutionize our lives: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ – ‘Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures on earth’ – ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you’ – ‘stop lying to each other’ and so on.

But there are also little nudges we get from the Holy Spirit sometimes. With me, it often takes the form of a person coming to mind, with the little thought that I need to call them or send them an email. Sometimes it turns out to have been a mistake, but more often than not it doesn’t. What I’ve noticed is that if I obey those little nudges of guidance, they tend to come more often. But when I don’t, they stop coming. Simple lesson there? If I want to experience more of God’s guidance, I need to be sure I pay attention when it comes!

One last thing. If we want to keep in step with the Spirit – if we want to drink of this ‘river of living water’ that Jesus is talking about – then we will want to pray. And when I say ‘pray’, I don’t just mean ‘Come to Jesus for five minutes every day with a shopping list of wants’.

We’re all busy people, but I have discovered that my days go much better if I start them in prayer, and if that prayer includes a healthy portion of silence. So I try to get here earlier than I need to most days, and then I can sit in quiet for a few minutes. I don’t necessarily say very much. I just sit in a chair and pay attention to the presence of God. Sometimes it’s a struggle; my brain is buzzing and there are so many internal distractions. Usually it takes longer than five minutes to get past them. Usually, after about ten or twelve minutes of silence, I begin to feel like I’m getting through. But I’m not trying; I’m just sitting and paying attention. And eventually, most days, I do get a deeper awareness of God’s presence and more joy as I go into my day.

Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7.37-38). Notice the direction here: out of the believer’s heart. We might have thought it would be the other way – into the believer’s heart – but it’s an outward flow. And so it is for us. When we come to Jesus and drink of the gift of the Holy Spirit, we become a refreshing presence in the world around us. The blessings of God flow out from us, touching other people and giving them a sense of God’s love for them as well. That’s God’s will for all of us. I can experience it and so can you.

So – will you come to Jesus and drink?