‘Reading and Meditating on the Word of God’ (2016 Lent sermon series #6)

For the past five weeks we’ve been on a Lenten journey together. We’ve been thinking about how we can experience for ourselves what Jesus says in Revelation 3:20: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. As we think about how to open the door to Jesus, we’ve been guided by some words from the Ash Wednesday service in the B.A.S.: ‘I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God’.

So we’ve been thinking about these six practices we can build into our lives as a way of deepening our relationship with Christ. This week, the last Sunday in Lent, we’re going to turn our attention to the sixth habit: ‘reading and meditating on the Word of God’. So this is not going to be a traditional Palm Sunday sermon, thinking about the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey. Instead we’re going to be thinking about the entry of the Word of God into our hearts and lives as we read and meditate on the Scriptures.

Let’s think for a minute about this phrase ‘the Word of God’. Nowadays when Christians use that phrase we tend to think immediately of the Bible. But I would argue that we need to be careful about making a hard and fast identification between the written words of the Bible and the living Word of God.

What do I mean by that? Am I meaning disrespect for the written Scriptures? Not at all; I love the Scriptures, I thank God for giving them to us, and I read them every day. But I also know that as Christians we don’t read them ‘flat’, giving every book the same authority. We don’t, for instance, refuse to profit from our pension plans because they are based on the lending of money at interest, even though this practice is forbidden in parts of the Old Testament. We don’t see it as a compulsory religious duty to circumcise our sons, and we don’t punish sons who curse their fathers by putting them to death. Neither do we believe that God calls people today to wipe out the entire populations of cities, including women, children, and helpless babies, as the people did in the Old Testament book of Joshua.

We also know that, in the Bible, the title ‘The Word of God’ is applied first and foremost to Jesus himself; as the B.A.S. says, “He is your living word, through whom you have created all things”. In the famous words of John’s Gospel:

‘And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

So as faithful followers of Jesus we pray for God’s help to read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. We know that Jesus stood in continuity with the Old Testament, but at the same time he felt quite free to modify some of its ideas; in the Sermon on the Mount he says several times “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” This is particularly clear with the command to love our enemies; Old Testament people felt quite free to hate their enemies and even commit acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing, but Jesus does away with that for his followers:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).

So yes: as Christians, we read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. We interpret everything else written in the scriptures according to his teaching and example. St. Paul certainly knew this. In 1 Corinthians chapter 7 he is giving some guidance to the Corinthian Christians about matters of marriage, divorce, celibacy and so on. Several times in the passage he clearly distinguishes between commands he is issuing on his own authority as an apostle, and commands he has received from Jesus in the tradition that was later written down in the gospels. He says things like ‘To the married I give this command – not I, but the Lord’ (meaning ‘the Lord Jesus’) (1 Corinthians 7:10), and ‘to the rest I say – I and not the Lord’ (7:12). He obviously feels he’s on much firmer ground when he has a recorded command of Jesus on which to base his teaching.

As so often, C.S. Lewis has wise things to say on this subject. In a letter written to one of his many correspondents in 1952, he says, ‘It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him’. And Martin Luther, in a beautiful image, says, “Scripture is the manger in which the Christ lies. As a mother goes to a cradle to find her baby so the Christian goes to the Bible to find Jesus. Don’t let us inspect the cradle and forget to worship the baby.”

To sum up then, for us followers of Jesus ‘reading and meditating on the Word of God’ means reading and meditating on the Scriptures in the light of the things that Jesus said and did. If we read the Scriptures in this way, we will not be so easily led astray.

Now, how can we do this? Let me offer you some suggestions.

First, let’s always remember that the book we call ‘the Bible’ is not actually one book; it’s a library of books, written over a period of at least thirteen hundred years, in languages that no one speaks any more. If you went down to your local library and borrowed some books from the shelves, you’d pay careful attention to the genre of those books. Let’s suppose you borrowed a copy of Dante’s Inferno (which was first written in Italian in the 14th century), a novel, a biography, a book of letters by a famous person, a history of the first settlers to come to Canada, a copy of the criminal code, a book of poetry written by Wordsworth in the 19th century, and a book by Stephen Hawking about the origins of the universe.

Would you read all those books in exactly the same way? Of course not! Many things in the Criminal Code would not be relevant to you. The novel might well contain truth, but it would be a different kind of truth than the history book, and different again from the poetry. Dante’s poetry from the 14th century would be very different from Wordsworth’s from the 19th. In other words, you would pay careful attention to the genre of the books, and adjust your reading expectations accordingly.

The Bible is like that. It begins with what looks very much like a poem or hymn about the creation of the universe, written in seven verses with a common refrain at the end of each verse. There are stories about famous heroes from Israel’s past, sermons from great Old Testament preachers who we call ‘the prophets’, usually collected without giving us much background information about the original occasions when they were preached. There’s a hymn book – the Book of Psalms – collected and used by the Jewish people before the time of Jesus. There are four biographies of Jesus, each written from a different point of view, and there are letters written by early Christian leaders to guide churches they had started. These are just a few examples of the kind of thing we’ll find in the library we call ‘the Holy Scriptures’.

The library has two floors. There’s a ground floor, that most Christians call ‘the Old Testament’; it was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and it collects together books written about God’s dealings with the people of Israel from ancient times up to a couple of hundred years before the coming of Jesus. Then there’s an upstairs floor, the New Testament, written in Greek, that tells the story of Jesus and of the early Christians who followed him and spread his message around the Mediterranean world after his resurrection and ascension into heaven. Some Bibles also contain a sort of stairwell between the two floors, a collection of books called ‘the Apocrypha’, written between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New; not all Christians are agreed about the authority of those books – but that’s a subject for another day!

So how shall we explore this library? How shall we ‘read and meditate on the Word of God’ that comes to us through these books? Let me give three suggestions, based around the three words ‘read’, ‘study’, and ‘meditate’.

First, read. I think this is the most pressing need among Anglican Christians today when it comes to Bible knowledge: familiarity with the big picture. If I were to ask you how many of you have read the Bible all the way through, from start to finish, I suspect that only a very small minority would be able to say that you had.

When I was the rector of St. Anne’s Church in Valleyview, I mentioned this in a sermon one day, and one of the people present took me up on it. He wasn’t an especially scholarly guy, but he decided he would read the Bible through from start to finish. He had a Good News Bible, which is a fairly easy translation to read, and he decided to start at the beginning and read every night for fifteen or twenty minutes until he was done. His Bible included the Apocrypha so it was a bit longer than some, and it took him eight months to get through it.

I was actually a little surprised that he stuck with it; a lot of people start out and then give up in Leviticus or Numbers, which are pretty heavy going. But my friend kept on going. I remember that when he was about half way through, he and I went out for coffee, and he confessed to me that he was a little disappointed in the Bible. “I thought it was going to be full of inspiring and uplifting stories”, he said, “but it’s full of awful people who do awful things to each other, and thousands and thousands of animals getting slaughtered in sacrifices. And all those wars!”

Yes, I replied – the books of the Bible are about sinners just like us! Sinners are the only people God’s got to work with! The people in the Bible were tempted like we are, they gave in to temptation like we do, they misunderstood God and got things wrong just like we do. The big picture of the story of the Bible is the story of a God who doesn’t give up on us when we go wrong: he keeps trying to guide and teach his people, and eventually he comes among us as one of us to live and die and rise again for our salvation.

We need to know this big picture a lot better than we do. I think many Anglicans know a few passages of the Bible quite well; we’ve heard them read in church as isolated passages, but we don’t have much idea about where they come from, what comes before and after them, and how they fit into the big picture of the story of the Bible. No wonder we feel so nervous about guiding our kids in their Christian education! No wonder we feel so badly equipped to share our faith with others!

So I would encourage all of you, if you haven’t done so already, just to read the Bible through. Make no mistake – if you do, you’ll hit some passages that are hard to understand, and some passages that annoy you intensely. Don’t worry about that. Just keep on reading. Fifteen minutes a day will take you through the whole Bible in six to eight months, depending on how fast a reader you are. If you come across passages you want to find answers about, or verses you want to meditate on at your leisure, just mark them so you know where to find them. And then carry on reading.

So that’s the first word – read. The second word is study. Studying is our attempt to come to a better understanding of what an individual passage means. In fact, you could say that in these three words – read, study, and meditate – we’re asking three questions: ‘What does it say?’ ‘What does it mean?’ and ‘What does it mean to me?’

In the modern English-speaking world, there are some incredibly helpful resources to help us understand what the Bible means. The most important one, I suggest, is a good study Bible. Study Bibles are simply editions of the Bible with supplementary notes prepared by good Bible scholars. There will be introductions to the books, to tell you when the individual books were written, what we think the historical context was, who the author was (if we know), what we know about him – or them – and what we know about the process by which the book was written. Then at the bottom of each page there will be notes explaining difficult passages, or pointing out allusions to other places in the Bible, and stuff like that. Talk to me afterwards if you want some recommendations for good study Bibles; I’ve got a few!

There are also big fat Bible commentaries, or smaller commentaries on individual books of the Bible. But in my opinion, the best way to start studying is just to get a really good study Bible and become familiar with it.

Also – don’t forget the benefit of studying with others. Some of us in this church belong to Bible study groups. Years ago, a lot more Christians were part of groups like that. Not many years ago, actually; my last church, St. Anne’s Valleyview, had an average Sunday attendance of less than thirty, and it wasn’t unusual for us to get ten or twelve people out to a midweek Bible study group – some of them parents with school age children. Nowadays people seem to have lots of other things to do, and of course our life is busy and stressful. But I think we miss out on something good if we don’t take advantage of opportunities to come together with other Christians to study the Bible.

So we read, we study, and then the last word is ‘meditate’. This is when we ask ‘What does this passage mean to me?’ In other words, how is my life going to be changed by reading it? Personally, I find it helpful to do meditation with a pen in my hand, so that I can write down my thoughts. I’m not good at thinking inside my head; I find it a lot easier to think with my pen.

Here are some helpful questions we can ask the passage we’re reading. What’s the main theme of this passage? Have I learned anything new about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, about the world, about myself? What surprised me? What shocked me? What annoyed me? Was there a command for me to put into practice, and if so, what would it look like if I tried to live by it today? Was there a good example for me to follow, or a bad example for me to avoid? Was there someone in the story I identified with? If so, why? Was there something that puzzled me, that I’d like to ask someone about?

These are just a few questions that can help us apply a passage of the Bible to our own lives. As we meditate on it, we receive the Word of God into our hearts and we begin to live it out in our daily lives. And that will bring transformation.

Let me close with a word of personal testimony. I’ve been reading the Bible daily since I was about thirteen. A lot of people assume that the reason ministers know so much about the Bible is because they’ve been to seminary to study it. Well, I can’t speak for my clergy colleagues, but I’d have to say that for me, it wasn’t like that. The most important factor in my own Bible knowledge wasn’t studying it in college; it happened long before that. It was when my parents bought me a copy of The Living Bible, one of the early paraphrases, or easy to understand versions of the Bible. I don’t remember exactly when that happened but I’m guessing I would have been about fourteen.

Nowadays I don’t really recommend The Living Bible, because it’s not too accurate, although there is a modern version of it, The New Living Translation, that’s a lot better. But what The Living Bible did for me was to encourage me to read it through, just like a book. I’m sure I read it all the way through two or three times before I was out of my teens. And that’s what laid the foundation for all my Bible study since then.

So – let’s read it, let’s study it, let’s meditate on it and put it into practice in our lives. If we do that, the living word of God will transform us, and that will make all the difference.

Almsgiving (2016 Lent sermon series #5)

As I begin this sermon today I feel a bit like St. Paul when he was writing one of his first letters, the one we now call First Thessalonians. In chapter four he says, ‘Finally, dear brothers and sisters, we urge you in the name of the Lord Jesus to live in a way that pleases God, as we have taught you. You live this way already, and we encourage you to do so even more’ (1 Thessalonians 4:1 NLT). In other words, Paul is saying, “I don’t really have to say much to you about this – you’re already doing a wonderful job of living to please the Lord – but I just want to encourage you to keep on doing what you’re doing, and to go even further with it!”.

Well, that’s how I feel today as I talk to you about the discipline and habit of ‘almsgiving’. ‘Giving alms’ is an old English expression for ‘giving to help the poor and needy’, and I certainly don’t need to remind members of St. Margaret’s to do that. Over the years you’ve given hundreds of thousands of dollars – I’m not exaggerating, I’ve got the records – for things like water wells in Africa, rehabilitating child prostitutes in Asia, sponsoring children, mobile medical clinics, mosquito nets, small business micro-loans, and good old goats and ducks! You’ve given clothing to Hope Mission and the Bissell Centre, you’ve filled a treasure chest for kids at the Stollery and bought colourful band aids and Lego kits for them, you’ve filled cosmetic bags for the homeless and brought recycled bottles in to support the work of Winn House. You’ve given to Habitat for Humanity and cooked meals for the volunteers on their building sites, and you’ve served meals for the Inner City Pastoral Ministry. And these are just a few of the things that you do through our parish; I know many of you have projects you support privately as well. We have three World Vision sponsor children through the parish, but at the last count there were more than twenty others being supported by members of this faith community!

So, when it comes to almsgiving, I’m saying with St. Paul, “I know you’re already doing a wonderful job of it, but I just want to encourage you to keep on doing what you’re doing, and to go even further with it as you have the opportunity!”

Let’s remind ourselves of where we’re going with this and why we’re talking about it today. This Lent we’re thinking about how we can open ourselves up to the presence of the Lord in a new and fresh way – how we can return to our first love for him, or perhaps take a step forward into a deeper love than we’ve ever known before. Our theme verse is Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”.

In thinking about how we might go about opening the door to Jesus, we’re being guided by some words from the Ash Wednesday service in the B.A.S.:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Here are six concrete habits or practices that we can build into our lives. During the six Sundays of Lent I’m thinking with you about these six habits, and this week, the Fifth Sunday in Lent, we’ve come to almsgiving.

Most of you will be familiar with the famous parable of the Sheep and the Goats that Jesus tells in Matthew 25:31-46. He says that when the Son of Man comes in his glory he will gather the nations before him and separate them into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats, the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then he’ll turn to the sheep and say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”. Then the righteous will reply, “Lord, we don’t remember that! When was it that we saw you in trouble like this and helped you?” And he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me”.

But then, of course, he turns to the goats and says, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and thirsty and a stranger and naked and sick and in prison and you did nothing to help me”. They reply, “We don’t remember that, Lord! When did we see you in trouble and refuse to help you?” And he says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it for the least of these, you did not do it for me”. Jesus concludes by saying, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”.

Now it’s important to remember that in one sense, Jesus was not saying anything new. You’ll remember another story he told, of the rich man who refused to help the beggar Lazarus. After he dies, he is sent to Hades for being so devoid of compassion. He is in torment in the fire, and he says to Abraham, “Please let me go to my father’s house, where I have seven brothers; I want to warn them, so that they don’t come to this dreadful place too”. But Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them” (Luke 16:29). In other words, anyone who reads the Old Testament with half a brain already knows that people who want to follow God are morally obligated to help the poor and needy whenever and wherever they have opportunity to do so.

In his teaching in the Old Testament, Moses sets up structures that ensure that there won’t be a huge gap between rich and poor in ancient Israel. The land belongs to God, not to land owners; everyone is assigned enough land to support their families, but in case some people get into difficulty and have to sell their land to make ends meet, every fifty years all land is to revert to the families it was originally given to, so that equality can be preserved. At the same time, all debts are to be forgiven and all slaves set free. It’s called the year of Jubilee, and it’s right there in the Law of Moses, in Leviticus chapter 25.

But of course Moses knew that human beings will be disobedient, and in fact there’s no historical evidence that Israel ever obeyed his instructions about the year of Jubilee – big surprise, eh? And so Moses set in place other legislation to make sure that the poor and needy were cared for. If a man needed a loan to make ends meet and he had to give you his cloak for collateral, you were legally required to give it back to him every evening – otherwise he wouldn’t have a blanket to wrap himself in to keep warm at night, and he might die of exposure. In a culture where most loans were like modern pay day loans – in other words, they weren’t venture capital, they were subsistence loans so that people could avoid starvation – Israelites were absolutely forbidden from charging interest; that was seen as fleecing the poor and an abomination to God. And when you were harvesting the grain in your field, you were commanded not to be too efficient about it; you were to make sure to leave some standing on the edges of the field, so that the poor and needy would be able to come and glean some grain to eat.

That’s just a few examples of the way the Law of Moses commands people to act compassionately toward the poor and needy. The prophets reinforce this message. In a blistering passage in Isaiah 58, the prophet condemns those who observe religious fasts at the same time as they oppress the poor. What sort of fast does God really want to see, the prophet asks? And he replies in God’s name:

‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?…If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall arise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday’ (Isaiah 58:6-7, 10).

When we turn to the New Testament, of course the message is just as strong. We saw last week that Jesus assumed his disciples would practice the three basic disciplines of all godly Jews – prayer, fasting and giving to the poor. He didn’t say “If you give alms”, as if it was an option his disciples could set aside if they wanted to. He said, “So whenever you give alms…”, and then proceeded to give them instructions about how to do it sincerely, without making it into a photo opportunity for yourself. And in parable after parable, and saying after saying, he warns his followers about greed and covetousness; he tells them to sell their possessions and give to the poor instead. When you read what Jesus has to say about money, it sounds a bit like he’s talking about radioactive material: yes, it can do a lot of good, but you have to handle it very carefully or it’ll poison you! And the best way to do that, in his view, is to live a life of constant generosity to the poor.

Paul also saw this as a priority. In his letter to the Galatians he talks about a meeting he had with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, in which they discussed unity between the Jewish and Gentile churches. He says, ‘They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do’ (Galatians 2:9). And in Ephesians he talks about the transformative effect the gospel has in these terms: ‘Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their hands, so as to have something to share with the needy’ (Ephesians 4:28).

Paul actually spent a lot of time and energy organizing a relief fund so that his Gentile churches could help the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who were going through a time of severe hardship and famine. To him, this wasn’t peripheral, it was central to his understanding of what being a Christian meant. Listen to what he says to the Corinthians (I’m reading from the New Living Translation):

Of course, I don’t mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality. Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal. As the Scriptures say, “Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough”. (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).

You could call this Paul’s kingdom principle: in the kingdom of God, everyone will have enough but no one will have too much. Sounds very much like the Law of Moses, doesn’t it?

So we’ve seen that almsgiving is a central and integral part of the Christian life; from Genesis to Revelation and everything in between, the duty to help the poor and needy is underlined over and over again. So how ought we to apply this teaching to our daily lives?

I would argue first of all that if we want to follow Jesus, we Christians will cultivate an attitude of compassion, rather than an attitude of suspicion. You know what I mean by an attitude of suspicion, don’t you? That’s the attitude that says, “The poor are poor because they choose to be poor”. “If I give to them they’ll just spend it on drink”. “Those aid organizations are fleecing their donors and paying their employees fat salaries”. “Those refugees are just ISIS agents”. And of course, I could go on; we’ve heard the arguments many times.

The interesting thing about the teaching of Jesus is that he never capitulates to this attitude of suspicion. Please understand that this is not just my opinion! Go read the gospels for yourself, and read the things that Jesus says about giving to the poor. He never blames the poor for being poor. He never says, “Give to everyone who asks you, unless you can smell alcohol on their breath”. And Paul never says, “We’ve got enough poor people in the Greek churches; we should help them first before we give to the poor in Jerusalem”. To him, God recognizes no national boundaries: people are people are people, whether they’re Canadian or Syrian or Ethiopian or Thai or anything else. I see a Syrian or an Iraqi: God sees a beloved child, someone for whom Christ died.

Please understand that I’m not saying we don’t have to think hard about the best way to give aid to the poor and needy. I’m talking about our attitude, and I fear that for many of us, the attitude is that the poor and needy are a nuisance. Here I am, walking along the street, minding my own business, and suddenly there’s a homeless person in my face, asking me for help. How dare they interrupt my enjoyable afternoon! Or, I’m just quietly checking my email, and look – here’s another message from World Vision, or Oxfam, asking me for help for starving people living in refugee camps. Why don’t they leave me alone? They’re such a nuisance!

I don’t think a follower of Jesus can ever say that. If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to read the gospels again and look for any possible hint that Jesus saw it as legitimate for me to see the poor and needy as a nuisance. Yes, of course we have to think carefully about the best and wisest way to help them, and maybe in some circumstances that way won’t be a handout. But the motivation for our decisions must always be love, not a desire to get these people out of our hair.

As always, C.S. Lewis has some good advice on this subject: hard to hear, but full of truth and holiness. I can’t remember where I found these two quotes, but I do remember that they made an impression on me when I first read them.

The first is where he talks about giving some money to help a street person one day. Someone said to him, “Why did you do that? He’ll just spend it on drink!” To which Lewis replied, “Perhaps, but if I’d kept the money, I would just have spent it on drink!” A good point! I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of money on luxuries, including expensive musical instruments and cups of coffee that cost as much as desserts used to cost – and more, even – all the while reserving the right to still insist that “I’m not really rich, you know – Bill Gates is way better off than I am!” So maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to point the finger!

The other quote is where Lewis was asked how much a Christian should give? His reply was something like this: “I’m afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we think we can afford. In other words, there should be some things that we’d like to do that we can’t afford to do, because of our giving to the poor”. I think that’s absolutely true. That’s part of what it means to “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

Finally, let’s remind ourselves what Jesus says about our attitude. We all know that politicians love photo ops. No politician ever gives to support a program secretly; they always call a press conference, and make sure everyone knows that this grant toward such and such a program is coming to you, courtesy of this political party and this member of parliament, so you’d better vote for them next time around!

Politicians aren’t the only ones, though. When I went to the symphony last week, the program notes I was handed at the beginning included the names of all the major donors who’ve supported the symphony for many years. I’m assuming those folks were given the option of staying anonymous, but none of them did! It’s the same when I go to the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. And many churches have plaques saying “Such and such a thing was given by the generosity of so-and-so”.

Jesus has a different approach. Don’t blow a trumpet to announce your giving, he says. “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4). So – give to the poor and needy generously, extravagantly, compassionately, and sacrificially – and don’t get found out! That’s the way of life Jesus is teaching us! And as he said on another occasion, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them”! (John 13:17).

Fasting (Lent 2016 sermon series #4)

Last week I gave you a personal testimony about prayer; my sermon was made up mainly of stories about my own personal experiences of the different kinds of prayer. I felt confident in doing that, because I’ve been praying regularly for a long time, and I’ve tried lots of different things.

But this week, the situation is entirely different. Our subject this week is one that I have very little personal experience of, and I’m sure I’ve missed out on a lot of spiritual benefit because of it. Recently, however, I’ve started to work my way back into it, and I’m already seeing some fruit from it. Our subject for this week is fasting.

Let’s back up a bit. This Lent we’re thinking about how we can open ourselves up to the presence of the Lord in a new and fresh way – how we can return to our first love for him, or perhaps take a step forward into a deeper love than we’ve ever known before. Our theme verse is Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”.

In thinking about how we might go about opening the door to Jesus, we’re being guided by some words from the Ash Wednesday service in the B.A.S.:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Here are six concrete habits or practices that we can build into our lives. During the six Sundays of Lent I’m thinking with you about these six habits, and this week, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, we’re going to look at fasting.

Fasting is a spiritual discipline known in almost all of the great religious traditions of the world. For the vast majority of human history, for the vast majority of the human race, it has just been assumed that if you want to find a spiritual path in life, fasting is a useful tool to use. And yet nowadays in mainstream western society fasting is hardly ever practiced – or if it is, it’s just about dieting, not about spiritual growth and seeking God.

I suspect one reason for this is our notion that we just should never say ‘no’ to ourselves. If you want something, why shouldn’t you have it? Food, drink, possessions, luxuries, sex – why would you ever want to deny yourself these things? And yet as Christians we know that the language of self-denial is an integral part of our response to the 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). Jesus took it for granted that it’s not good for us to have everything we want, and that regularly saying ‘no’ to ourselves can help us grow stronger in body, mind, and spirit. Fasting is an important part of that.

The list of people in the pages of scripture who practiced fasting is a long one; let me remind you of a few of them. In the Old Testament, Moses went through a forty-day fast when he received the Law from God. King David fasted and prayed when his baby son fell sick. Elijah the prophet fasted when he went to the Sinai desert to seek a fresh touch of God’s power in his life. Esther the Queen fasted and prayed for God’s help before taking a potentially life-threatening risk. Daniel the prophet fasted and prayed as a regular part of his spiritual discipline.

In the New Testament we read about an old woman called Anna who ‘never left the temple but worshipped there with prayer and fasting night and day’ (Luke 2:37). Jesus of course went on a forty day fast in the wilderness when he was tempted by the devil; we’re told that it was the Holy Spirit who led him to do this. In the time of Jesus all devout Jews fasted once a year on the Day of Atonement, and many fasted regularly on a weekly basis too. St. Paul fasted for three days after he had his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. The Christians in Antioch ‘were worshipping the Lord and fasting’ when the Holy Spirit guided them to send Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. And so the list goes on.

Jesus assumed that his disciples would fast. In Matthew 6 he describes the spiritual disciplines practiced by all devout Jews in his day: giving to the poor, praying, and fasting. He assumes his disciples will practice all three, and he gives them instructions about how to do so in the right spirit. He doesn’t say “If you give alms…pray…fast”. He says, “Whenever you give alms…” (6:2), “And whenever you pray…” (6:5), “And whenever you fast…” (6:16). To him, these are just the ordinary practices of a healthy spiritual life.

So what do we mean by fasting? Nowadays we need to ask this question, because all sorts of practices have come under this heading. Some Christian traditions abstain from meat on Fridays but eat everything else, and call it ‘fasting’. In many eastern Orthodox churches meatless Lents are still the rule, as they used to be in the western church too. And many people practice forms of self-denial and call it ‘fasting’.

These are all excellent practices, and we might use them as a way of learning to fast, or as a substitute if our health does not allow us to practice the full biblical fast. But a true fast, in the Bible, involves giving up all food, but not usually water, in order to devote yourself more fully to prayer and seeking the Lord. In the forty day fast of Jesus, for instance, we’re told that ‘he ate nothing at all’ and that at the end ‘he was famished’ and Satan tempted him to turn stones into bread. There’s no mention of thirst, so we can assume that he drank water during that time.

What’s the purpose of fasting?

Sometimes, in the Bible, it’s a sign of repentance and mourning for one’s sins. Perhaps people have been coasting along in their lives, but then somehow they’ve heard the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to them, challenging them about the direction they’re taking, and they’ve realized that they’ve been going the wrong way. They’re cut to the heart, and they’re so upset by the realization of their sins that they even neglect their eating so that they can spend more time in prayer, seeking the Lord, asking his forgiveness and his help to turn things around.

Sometimes it’s not so much about our sins as it is about our deep hunger and thirst for God. Psalm 42 says,

‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul longs for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?’ (Psalm 42:1-3).

We human beings have a deep inner hunger to know God, to feel a sense of connection to the one who made us. Sometimes we don’t even know what that hunger is for. Sometimes we mistake it for a desire for possessions, or food and drink, or sex, or the approval of others. Sometimes we know it for what it is, but when we try to turn to God, we don’t get any immediate results, so we give up and try to fill the empty space with something else.

Fasting is a way of refusing to fill that empty space with something else. It’s as if we’re asking our body to join in the prayer of our heart. “God, I’m hungry for you, and I’m not going to accept any substitute. If you won’t fill that empty space, O God, I’m just going to leave it empty. I’m going to cultivate my sense of longing to you, and refuse to be satisfied with second best”. Fasting is way of acting out this prayer, so that we truly feel it, not just in our souls, but in our bodies, too.

In a sense, we could say that fasting is part of the removal of distraction in our spiritual life. In the parable of the sower, Jesus talks about the things that can choke out the word of God in our lives:

“Other (seeds) are sown among the thorns; these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing” (Mark 4:18-19).

These things are not necessarily sinful, you see, but if we seek them and make them the centre of our lives, they prevent us from “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”, as Jesus said. So when we fast, we set the distractions aside for a while, and focus our attention wholly on God and God’s word to us.

Fasting is also good spiritual exercise in self-control. We’re told in the Bible that ‘self-control’ is part of the fruit of the Spirit, one of the virtues that the Holy Spirit wants to grow in our lives. But of course, one of the ways the Holy Spirit grows the fruit is through practice! We are never going to grow as Christians if we can’t say ‘no’ to our own desires and turn instead to what God wants us to do. Fasting is good practice in helping us do that. Our body cries out like a spoilt child: “I’m starving! Feed me! Feed me now!” Gradually, as we practice fasting, we learn to reply, “Don’t be ridiculous! It takes more than forty days to starve! Grow up, body, and learn to put up with a little discomfort!”

So here are four good reasons for practicing the discipline of fasting: as a sign of repentance and mourning for our sins, as a sign of our deep hunger and thirst for God, as a way of removing distractions from our spiritual lives, and as a good spiritual exercise in self-control.

Of course, fasting by itself is not enough; it’s usually coupled in the Bible with prayer. So those who fast will often take the time they would have spent at meals and spend it in extra prayer and meditation on the Word of God instead. Of course, some of us have family responsibilities that make it hard for us to do that, but still, while we’re preparing meals and feeding others, we can be turning to the Lord in our hearts. Personally, I find this to be one of the most beneficial aspects of fasting. My days are busy like everyone else’s, but missing a couple of meals frees up some extra time, and I can use it for prayer, reading scripture, and listening for God’s guidance and direction in my life.

Let me say a word of caution: there are some people who cannot fast, for good medical reasons. There are a number of medical conditions, such as diabetes, that would be negatively impacted by fasting. Pregnant women and nursing mothers probably should not fast as well. Also, some medications need to be taken with food, and obviously you can’t skip them. So we need to be sensible about this. If in doubt, it’s wise to ask a doctor.

So – you’ve been listening to the sermon so far, and you’re thinking, “That’s intriguing. I’ve never really thought about fasting as a part of my Christian life, but maybe I should try it. How should I go about starting?”

My response would be, “Start small!” As I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, I’m just getting back into the practice of fasting after years away from it. The way I’m doing it right now is what I call the ‘twenty-three and a half-hour fast’! In other words, I skip breakfast and lunch, and because I don’t eat between meals, that means I’m fasting from just after supper the first night until just before supper the second night. I’m also not yet at the stage of fully abstaining from any liquids other than water; I still drink some coffee and tea and juice during that time, although I try to cut down a bit on caffeine.

I also found that spending a few weeks learning not to eat between meals was good preparation for this fasting discipline. When I was in the habit of eating between meals regularly, I had lost the ability to say ‘no’ to my appetite. But practicing this for a few weeks first made it much easier for me to get back into fasting.

As I mentioned before, it’s important to fill the empty space; fasting and prayer always go together in the Bible. I’m finding right now on my weekly fast that missing breakfast gives me some extra time in the morning, so I don’t need to be in such a rush about my morning time of prayer and Bible reading. Missing lunch leaves another space for me; sometimes I spend it in self-examination, sometimes in reading a spiritual book and reflecting on how I might learn from what it says and put it into practice in my life.

I should say that there is some very sensible practical information out there about how to eat before and after a fast. It’s not usually a good idea, for instance, to eat a huge meal before you fast; it’s better to cut down a little and ease into it. Coming out, the same rule applies: your stomach will have shrunk a bit, so it’s wise not to stuff yourself. But do a google search on the subject, and you’ll find lots of information about good foods to eat before and after a fast.

Let’s close by reminding ourselves what this is all about. It’s possible to fast for the wrong reasons, and in the wrong spirit. In the Old Testament Book of Zechariah the prophet speaks to the people on the name of the Lord: “When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?” (Zechariah 7:5). The King James Version says, “did ye at all fast unto me, even unto me?” And in Matthew 6 Jesus talks about those who fast to show off, as a way of impressing other people with how spiritual they are: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting” (Matthew 6:16). He counsels us to fast and not let anyone know we’re doing it, so we can be sure we’re doing it for God, not to impress others.

And there’s the rub, of course. That’s why we fast, as Christians: because this is one of the ways we can seek the face of God. The motivation for fasting is to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. We fast out of the deep longing the psalmist expressed in the words I quoted earlier:

‘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?’ (Psalm 42:1-2).

In other words, we’re back where we started from. Once again, Jesus is knocking at our door, asking us to let him in so that we can grow a deeper relationship with him. The universal testimony of our Jewish and Christian ancestors through the centuries is that fasting can help us do that. Maybe, today, God is speaking to us through their voices. Maybe God is whispering in our hearts again, reminding us of those gentle words of Jesus, “And when you fast…” Maybe the Spirit is calling us, just as he called Jesus to go out into the desert and fast, so that he could hear the voice of God more clearly.

Might he be inviting us to do something similar?

Prayer (2016 Lent Sermon Series #3)

Two and a half weeks ago, at our Ash Wednesday service, I used these words:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Here we have six concrete habits or practices that we can build into our lives, as a way of opening ourselves up to the presence of God in a new and fresh way. During the six Sundays of Lent I’m thinking with you about these six habits, and this week, the Third Sunday in Lent, we’re going to look at prayer.

Our theme verse for Lent is the well-known verse from the Book of Revelation:

“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20).

In this verse the Lord is calling us to welcome him again into the centre of our lives – to return to our first love for him, or perhaps to kindle a deeper love for him than we’ve ever known before. And there is probably no practice that’s more fundamental to this than the practice of prayer.

Prayer was central to the life of Jesus. Jesus had a busy daily schedule and he was always on the move. But in the midst of all that, the joy of his heart was to take time to be alone with God. In Mark 1:35, after a very busy sabbath, we read these words:

‘In the morning, while it was still very dark, (Jesus) got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed’.

We know from the gospels that this was his habit – regular withdrawal from the crowds for that quiet time with God. When he had decisions to make or when he was facing some particularly difficult task, he sometimes spent whole nights in prayer – no doubt waiting on his Father to guide him and strengthen him for what was ahead.

Jesus is also our teacher of prayer. In Luke 11 we read,

‘(Jesus) was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples”’ (Luke 11:1).

Have you ever felt that? Have you ever felt this deep hunger inside to come closer to God, to be more aware of God’s presence in your daily life? Have you ever wished you could find a journeyman prayer who could teach you how to pray? If so, you can understand what the disciples felt as they saw Jesus’ prayer life and thought, “Wow – he seems to be so much more aware of God’s presence with him! I wish I could pray like that!” And Jesus responded by giving them a prayer outline that we’ve used ever since – we call it ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, although it might just as easily be called ‘the Disciples’ Prayer’.

I don’t consider myself to be a journeyman prayer – far from it – but this morning I want to give you a personal testimony of prayer. My experience is that prayer is like a rich banquet with many different dishes available for us to enjoy. Christians have been praying for nearly two thousand years now, and our Jewish ancestors in the faith were praying long before us, as the Book of Psalms testifies. Down through those years our fathers and mothers in the faith discovered many different ways of praying, and all of us can find ways that work well for us. So this morning I want to pass on to you some of the things I’ve learned from them, in the hope that maybe you might get some ideas that will be helpful to you.

I’m going to go in roughly chronological order, in terms of when I discovered these various ways of praying in my life. So I want to start with the simple daily Quiet Time. The person I learned this from was my dad.

Some of you will have heard me tell the story of how, when I was a young teenager, my dad challenged me to give my life to Jesus, and I did. Not long after that, my dad gave me a little booklet called Seven Minutes with God. It was designed for people who had never prayed regularly before, and it described a very simple and accessible way to get started in daily prayer. The idea was to start with a short time, with the idea that it’s better for people to think “I wish I could go longer” than “This is boring – when is it going to end?”

The idea was to start with half a minute of silence, just to slow down, relax, and open yourself up to the peace of God in your heart. Then you would turn to the Bible, read a short passage, and maybe try to find one thing you could take with you through your day – perhaps a promise to receive, or a command to obey, or an example to follow, and so on. Having done that, you would turn to a very short time of vocal prayer, based on the outline of the word ‘ACTS’ – ‘adoration’, ‘confession’, ‘thanksgiving’, and ‘supplication’. ‘Adoration’ of course stands for worship and praising God. ‘Confession’ is admitting our sins to God and asking his forgiveness. ‘Thanksgiving’ is self-explanatory – naming our blessings and thanking God for them. And ‘supplication’ is simply asking God for his help – whether for other people or for ourselves.

The little booklet gave strict time allocations for this – half a minute for silence, four minutes for Bible reading, half a minute each for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication, and then half a minute at the end again for silence. I started following that outline almost immediately. I was always a morning person, so I liked doing it first thing in the morning before anyone else was awake.

As time went by, of course, I found that seven minutes wasn’t long enough, and so it gradually expanded. I wanted to spend longer in Bible reading, thinking about the passage and maybe noting down specific things I thought God might want me to do about what I was reading. I wanted to pray about what I was reading, too. And of course, it didn’t take me long to think of far too many sins to fit into thirty seconds of confession – not to mention needy people I wanted to pray for. So without feeling any sense of compulsion about it, I found that as the years went by the time expanded until it gradually settled down to about half an hour.

I didn’t always feel anything special while I was praying. I didn’t have great mystical experiences of the presence of God, and a wise spiritual writer called C.S. Lewis taught me not to worry about that. Don’t try to manufacture a feeling of God’s presence, he said; let God worry about that. If he thinks you need it, he’ll give it to you, and if not, trust that he knows best. One thing I did almost always experience, though, was a sense of peace after my prayer time. I still experience that today.

So that was the first meal I discovered on the banquet table of prayer. The second meal came after I started working as an Anglican minister. That was when I became aware of the ancient discipline we call ‘the Daily Office’. The Daily Office was developed over many centuries in monasteries as a way for monks and nuns to pray together. Monks had seven daily services, but in the sixteenth century Anglican reformers wanted to make them more accessible, so they reduced them to two – Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Many of us who have been lifelong Anglicans remember when these services were used on Sundays, but they weren’t originally intended for that – they were intended for daily prayer.

The Daily Office uses set written prayers. At its heart is the praying of the psalms – one hundred and fifty hymns and songs written by people in ancient Israel, and quickly adopted by the Church for its worship. We still say the psalms in our services each week; they are by far the oldest part of our service, as they were all written before the time of Jesus. In the Daily Office we pray through the book of Psalms regularly – the joyful ones and the miserable ones, the loving ones and the cursing ones. It doesn’t matter whether an individual psalm fits for us on a particular day; the Daily Office is the prayer of the whole church around the world, and you can bet that someone, somewhere is feeling what that psalm says! So we join with that person in offering the cry of their heart to God on that day; on other days, they join with us.

The Daily Office also includes short readings from the Bible, canticles of praise for us to pray together, and intercessions for us to offer for people all around the world. You can find the Daily Office at the front of our Book of Alternative Services in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer. Many Anglican clergy and some lay people use these offices to help them through times in their lives when prayer seems difficult, as well as good times. If you’re interested, I’ve prepared a shorter form of the daily office in bulletin format, and I’ve put some copies of it on the table at the back of the church today.

As I mentioned, I find the Daily Office very helpful when I’m going through a dry time, or when I’m tired, or when I just can’t think of what I should say to God. Sometimes it’s a great way of ‘priming the pump’ and getting prayer going. And it gives a good sense of fellowship; even if you pray it alone, you’re conscious of hundreds or thousands of others around the world who are doing the same thing. When we lived in the Arctic, in a very isolated community, I found that very meaningful.

So we’ve looked at two meals on the banquet table of prayer – the simple daily quiet time, and the daily office. A third one that I discovered was the prayer of silence, sometimes called Contemplative Prayer.

In one of his books, Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom tells the story of a priest who noticed that an old man was coming into his church every day to spend an hour or so, just sitting quietly, looking up at the figure of Jesus hanging on the crucifix at the front. The priest noticed that the man just sat there quietly, not moving very much, and he didn’t appear to be praying, because his lips weren’t moving. ‘He must be praying in his mind’, the priest thought. Eventually after a few weeks of this, the priest went and asked the old man, “What are you saying to the Lord when you sit here every day?” The old man smiled and shook his head. “Nothing”, he said. “I look at him, and he looks at me, and we are happy together”.

That’s a good description of contemplative prayer. We have a tendency to want to fil the universe with words all the time, but contemplative prayer recognizes that God is far beyond any words we can use. In contemplative prayer we simply quieten ourselves down, listen with our hearts, and open ourselves up to whatever it is God wants to give us. If we feel something or hear something, well and good. If we don’t, well and good too.

Some people find that quietly saying a verbal prayer in their hearts, over and over again, is a good way of moving into that contemplative silence. An old Orthodox prayer called ‘The Jesus Prayer’ is especially well known; it goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. The idea is to quietly say it in your heart, over and over again, until the repetition helps you to centre your heart on God. Some people like to coordinate it with their breathing, so that they’re breathing in for the first half of the prayer, and out for the second half. Eventually, when the verbal prayer has done its work, you can let it rest and just be quiet before God. If you find yourself getting distracted, you can use the verbal prayer again, to centre your mind and heart.

I have to say for myself that I find contemplative prayer difficult. It’s rewarding, but it’s hard work for me, so I don’t try to do it very often. That’s probably something to do with my temperament. We’re all different, and, as a wise prayer teacher once said, “Pray as you can, and don’t try to pray as you can’t”.

So we’ve talked about three ‘meals’ on the banquet table of prayer: the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, and contemplative prayer. Now I want to mention a fourth one that I’ve personally found very helpful: writing my prayers.

 

I learned this one from Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. Bill is the sort of person who runs on adrenalin; slowing down to be with God is not something that comes naturally to him. He’s also discovered that it’s very easy for him just to say words without really thinking about what they mean. But he’s discovered that writing is a good way of slowing down.

Bill’s daily discipline is to journal and pray, one after the other. Every morning he writes a page of journaling, just looking back on the previous day, reflecting on his walk with God and how it’s going. He then writes a one-page prayer, thinking carefully about what he wants to say to God, usually using the same four-part outline I mentioned earlier – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It’s his practice to then kneel down and pray the prayer he’s written out loud.

I tried Bill’s method for a while and then I modified it a bit to fit my own preferences. I started with the journaling, and then I did my daily Bible reading, trying to be alert to any particular verse or teaching that God wanted me to reflect on a bit. I find that reflecting with a pen in my hand works very well for me, so it was easy for me to write out my meditations and underline the things that were particularly significant.

I sometimes found that my writing was turning naturally into prayer. I didn’t feel the need to follow Bill’s practice of reading my prayer out loud to God; I figured that God could read my writing quite well, thank you very much! Nor did I necessarily feel the need to cover all four of the prayer subjects – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. An ordinary conversation doesn’t go that way; it tends to be unscripted, and sometimes we’re surprised at the way it goes. But I did find, like Bill, that writing the prayer was a good way for me to slow down, think about what I was saying, and use words that meant something – not “heaping up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard by their many words”, as Jesus says in Matthew 6:7.

This prayer journaling is a very effective way of praying for me; it’s probably my favourite way of praying. As I said, we’re all different, so pray as you can, not as you can’t!

However, it’s not my most common way of praying. I know my sermon is longer today than it normally is, but this is an important subject and there’s one more ‘meal’ I want to lay before you. We’ve thought about the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, Contemplative Prayer, and written prayer. The last one I want to share with you this morning is regular prayer with someone else.

People who want to exercise regularly will tell you that there is real power in agreeing to exercise together with someone else. We don’t always feel like doing it, but our commitment to the other person can carry us through those difficult times. And prayer is like that. Monks and nuns meet together every day to pray – that’s how the Daily Office started. They have their private prayers too, but the daily corporate prayer keeps them going. And praying together can be a powerful way of bringing us closer together too.

Well, I’m not a monk, but I do have a community; it’s called a marriage. And so I’m very happy to share a commitment with Marci that we pray together each day. This is not something that we’ve been doing for very long. We tried it a few times over the years, but we usually fizzled out – often because we were trying to do it last thing at night, and sometimes when you’re tired, it’s easy to put things off. But about three years ago we decide to try praying together first thing in the morning, and it seems to have worked well for us. We make a cup of tea and then pray a simple form of Morning Prayer together. We use little devotional Bible commentaries that lead us through individual books of the Bible; sometimes we discuss what we’ve read, and sometimes we don’t. Then we pray out loud in an informal way, first one of us, then the other, bringing our thanksgivings and requests to God. If one of you has asked for our prayers, that’s when we pray fro you. We finish with the Lord’s Prayer, and then we start our day. I think we’re both grateful to have discovered this practice, and we would certainly recommend it to others.

Well, this morning I’ve laid out a banquet table for you. Here are five different ways of praying that God’s people have discovered down through the centuries: the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, Contemplative Prayer, written prayer, and praying together with someone else.

Is it possible that this Lent God might be calling you to try one of these things? Maybe you’ve already got a regular habit of prayer, but you’re getting a little bored with it, you want to try something different, and something you’ve heard this morning has piqued your interest. Or maybe you don’t really have a regular prayer practice at all, and you can sense the Spirit calling you, saying, “Now’s the time”.

Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20). That knocking that you hear this morning is the call of the Holy Spirit to a deeper life of prayer. It’s probably one of the most powerful ways of welcoming God into the depths of our hearts. Psalm 8 says:

‘“Come”, my heart says, “seek his face”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.’

Let’s not ignore that voice in our hearts. Let’s seek the face of God by going deeper in prayer. Amen.

Repentance (2016 Lent Sermon Series #2)

Well, I was going to preach a sermon this morning, but I’ve changed my mind.

That got your attention, didn’t it?!

It’s a curious phrase, isn’t it, “changing your mind”. It’s a figure of speech, of course. We don’t actually change our mind; what we change is the way we’re thinking about a particular issue, and that change of mind leads to a change of action. “I was going to marry so and so, but as I got to know her a little better I realized that we had very different goals in life, so I’ve changed my mind”. “I was going to start a new job with such and such a company, but then I discovered that their benefits package wasn’t as good as I’d been led to believe, so I changed my mind”.

A change of thinking, leading to a change of action: that’s actually very close to the meaning of the word ‘repentance’. And ‘repentance’ is our subject for today. In our service on Ash Wednesday we used these words:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Here we are given six concrete habits or practices that we can build into our lives, as a way of opening ourselves afresh to Jesus and making him welcome in our hearts. During the six Sundays of Lent I’m thinking with you about these six habits. We started last week with self-examination, and today we’re going to move on to the second one – penitence, or repentance. What does that mean, and how can we build it into our lives?

It’s good to remember sometimes that the books of the Bible were not originally written in English. The Old Testament books are mostly in Hebrew, and the New Testament books in Greek. Translating words from one language to another can be a tricky business. Linguists will tell you that it’s actually quite rare to find a word in one language that’s the exact equivalent of a word in another language; more often than not, one of the words will have shades of meaning not found in the other. So when we’re studying the Bible it’s sometimes helpful to explore what the word means in the original language; it can help us get a better idea of what the original author may have meant.

In the Old Testament there are two main Hebrew words used to describe the idea of repentance. The first word is naham, and it’s usually used to describe something God does; ‘The Lord changed his mind’. So for instance, when the Israelite people made a golden calf to worship at Mount Sinai, God was angry and told Moses he was going to wipe them out, but Moses managed to persuade him otherwise; Exodus tells us that ‘The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people’ (Exodus 32:14). Obviously the author is writing from a human point of view; Moses received a warning from God, but in the end the plan wasn’t carried out, so God must have changed his mind or something! But this idea of changing your mind and following a different course of action is one way of looking at repentance.

The other Old Testament word is shub, and it means ‘to turn’ or ‘to return’. Obviously the idea here is that an individual or a nation is heading in the wrong direction; their actions are contrary to God’s will and are taking them further and further away from God. So God sends a messenger or prophet to challenge them; the people listen to the words of the prophet, and they ‘turn away’ from their evil deeds and ‘return’ to the Lord their God.

One verse in the Old Testament where both these words are used comes in the Book of Jonah. God sent Jonah to preach his word to a pagan city, Nineveh. Jonah expected the Ninevites to reject his message, but to his surprise, they didn’t; they repented, fasted, put on sackcloth and cried out to God for mercy. The result is described for us in Jonah 3:10:

‘When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it’.

They turned from their evil ways, and God changed his mind and turned from his plan to punish them: two kinds of repentance!

In the New Testament, the Greek word we often translate as ‘repentance’ is ‘metanoia’; like ‘naham’, it means ‘to think again’, or ‘a change of mind leading to a change of heart and behaviour’. Mark 1:14-15 says,

‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”’.

So people are living in a particular way, with a particular set of beliefs about life and what’s important to them. And then along comes Jesus with an announcement to make: the kingdom of God has come near! God is king, and he’s about to work to bring about his loving rule in the world. People need to get ready for this, so Jesus challenges them to change their thinking and their behaviour. A new way of seeing the world – ‘the kingdom of God is near’ – leads to a new way of living – ‘repent and believe the good news’.

I want to share three biblical stories of repentance with you to illustrate these words.

The first is the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15:11-32. A man has two sons, and the younger son says to him, “Father, I don’t want to wait until you die; I want my share of the property now”. So, amazingly, the father divides his property between his two sons. The younger son then takes his share and goes off to a faraway country where he squanders the money in what the King James Version calls ‘riotous living’!

Eventually the money runs out, and at the same time, a famine comes on that country. Pretty soon the younger son is in a bad way, and so he goes and gets a job with a pig farmer – which of course would be a little shocking for a good Jewish boy, pigs being unclean and all – and he’s so hungry that even the pig food looks good to him. Eventually he has a moment of epiphany. Here’s how Luke describes it:

‘But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands’” So he set off and went to his father’ (Luke 15:17-20).

This is a decisive moment of repentance. The son has taken a certain course of action, but in a moment of clarity he realizes that it’s getting him nowhere, and the future is looking pretty dire. He thinks again, he changes his mind, and he turns from his foolishness and returns to his father.

That can happen to us, too. Maybe without realizing it we’ve allowed ourselves to become addicted to something – alcohol or another drug, or a certain kind of destructive behaviour. For a while we manage to avoid facing the truth, but eventually something happens that makes it impossible for us to deceive ourselves any longer. We see ourselves as we really are, and we decide to pick up the phone and contact someone who can help us begin the journey of recovery. That’s metanoia – a change of mind, leading to a change of action.

Another New Testament story is the famous tale of Zacchaeus of Jericho, who, we are told, was ‘a chief tax collector and was rich’ (Luke 19:2). Tax collection in the Roman Empire was private enterprise and the tax collectors made their money from the commission they charged. Rome didn’t really care how much they charged as long as the empire got its proper cut, so you can guess how tax collectors lived and how they were seen by ordinary people!

When Jesus comes to Jericho, Zacchaeus is secretly quite interested in him. But Zacchaeus is a little guy and can’t see over the crowd, so he climbs a tree to get a good view. However, Jesus calls him down from the tree and says “Zacchaeus , I’m coming to eat at your house today!” Pharisees and ordinary taxpayers grumble loudly, but you can’t stop Jesus once he’s made his mind up, so off they go. And the next thing we know, Zacchaeus is making an announcement:

‘Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much”. Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham”’ (Luke 19:8-9).

Here we can see that repentance is severely practical. Zacchaeus’ major sin is greed and theft; he’s been fleecing the taxpayers of Jericho, and their complaints against him are legitimate. Jesus isn’t going to let him get away with just going to an Ash Wednesday service and getting an ash cross smeared on his forehead! Repentance means putting right what is wrong, and Zacchaeus knows it. Maybe he’s a little flamboyant about the way he announces it, but Jesus knows his heart is in the right place, and I’m sure the taxpayers of Jericho appreciate it, too!

Once again, this tells us that repentance is practical and can be costly. It’s not just a vague idea of ‘I’m going to try to be a nicer person’. It means that we examine ourselves, as we saw last week, and we ask God to show us what the most important issues are in our lives. Then we put definite plans in place to turn from our sins and start doing the right thing. And sometimes it helps to do as Zacchaeus did and to make those plans known to someone else, so that they can hold us accountable for the commitments we make.

The third story comes a bit earlier on in the gospels, from the life of John the Baptist. John, like Jesus after him, has been announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God and calling on people to repent and be baptized. Some people in the crowd ask him to be more specific about exactly what repentance involves. Here’s how Luke tells the story:

‘And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”. Even tax collectors came to him to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you”. Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages”’ (Luke 3:10-14).

John doesn’t mince words, does he? ‘If you’ve got two houses and you know someone who’s homeless, share with the homeless person’. ‘If you’re a tax collector, don’t charge a commission on your taxes’ (that would definitely have bankrupted a few tax collectors!). ‘If you’re a person in authority, don’t throw your weight around or use your influence to get rich – be content with your salary’. Notice how these are all what we would call today ‘issues of social justice’? Repentance isn’t just about my private morality; it’s about God’s will being done publicly, on earth as it is in heaven, and my part in making that happen.

So we’ve seen that repentance starts with our thinking: we’ve had a certain set of assumptions about life, but then Jesus challenges those assumptions. ‘The reign of God is at hand’, and that means God is the real ruler, not me, and not anyone else. It means that my life doesn’t belong to me; I’m accountable to God, and the day is coming when I will have to give account.

So I look at my life in the light of the Kingdom or Reign of God, and I see that my sinful behaviour is getting me nowhere; in fact, it’s going to make things worse and worse. So I decide to stop deluding myself, and I turn away from my current way of living and start doing things differently. That’s what repentance means, in a nutshell.

But there are two more things I want to say about repentance before I finish.

First, for some of us, certain milestones, certain times of the year, can be a real help. The idea of ‘new year resolutions’ is often mocked, but I would like to suggest that the usual problem is not in the ‘new year’ but in the ‘resolutions’ – people make unrealistic resolutions, or they make too many of them, or they don’t make concrete plans about how they’re going to put them into practice. “I’d like to lose weight this year” is not a good new year’s resolution. “I’m going to stop eating between meals, and stop having desserts, and take a daily walk” is much better, especially if we can enlist the help of another person to keep us on track.

For myself, I’ve very rarely had much success with making concrete changes in my life without the help of a milestone or a season. By ‘a milestone’, I mean ‘a new job’, or ‘a new home’, or ‘a new decade of life’. ‘Seasons’, of course, means something like new year’s, or Lent, or Advent. It just seems that for some of us, these things can give us just that little bit of extra impetus we need to make changes.

Lent, of course, is one of those seasons. So if you’ve got a pretty clear idea of some specific changes God is calling you to, why not jump on board right now, while Lent is still young? Make some concrete plans, ask for God’s help, and see if you can get someone else to help you by holding you accountable for the commitments you make.

The second thing, of course, is that little phrase ‘ask for God’s help’. We Christians know very well that, as the old prayer book used to say, ‘We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves’. We are weak, but God is strong, and he has given us his strong Holy Spirit to live in us. So we will want to call on the Spirit to fill us every day, and we will want to walk in step with him through the day, asking for his help over and over again if we find ourselves weak and tempted.

Remember what Jesus said when the disciples asked him, “Then who can be saved?” ‘Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). And Jesus also says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). So let’s abide in him, and let’s call on his Spirit daily for help, so that, as John the Baptist says, we can ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8).

I want to end this week with the verse I began with last week. Jesus is speaking to the members of the Church in Laodicea:

“Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20).

As I’ve been speaking to you this morning, is it possible that you’ve heard that quiet knock? Is it possible that the Holy Spirit has been whispering to you in your heart, saying, “This message of repentance is for you, you know?” If so, why not open the door and let Jesus in – and then ask him to show you what he wants practical repentance to look like in your life?

Self-Examination (Lent 2016 sermon series #1)

On Wednesday night, those of us who were here for the Ash Wednesday service spent a few minutes thinking about one of the most famous verses in the Bible, Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says to the church in Laodicea: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. This verse has been used many, many times by preachers and evangelists to illustrate the way a person becomes a Christian. Jesus is standing outside the door of our lives, knocking; he waits for us to open the door and welcome him into our hearts. This is what it means to become a Christian: to open the door and let Jesus into the centre of our lives, as our Lord and our Saviour.

Well, that’s true, but it can also be a cop-out for those of us who are already Christians. This verse has more to say to us. In fact, there are things that our Lord wants to say to each of us as we consider this verse and what it means for us.

You see, in its original context this verse was addressed to people who were already Christians, but who had allowed their love for Jesus to become lukewarm. Maybe at one time they’d been enthusiastic followers of Christ, but over the years, various distractions had come into their lives, and routine had taken over, and gradually their love had grown cold. Maybe they didn’t even realize it, but the truth was that Jesus was no longer welcome in the centre of their lives, among the things they treasured the most. Jesus had become a peripheral figure, a leisure time activity, someone to think about when they didn’t have more interesting or exciting things to do. But no longer could they say, as St. Paul had said in Philippians, ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (Phil. 1:21). ‘That’s fanaticism’, they whispered to themselves; ‘I prefer moderation in all things!’

Is this you? Is this me? If it is, then I’m absolutely certain that the Lord is calling to us this Lent to do something about it. He’s calling us to make a decision, to stop running in the wrong direction, and to open ourselves up once again to his loving presence and his loving will. Are you ready to do that? Am I? Are we ready to turn from distractions, hear that gentle knock, and open the door to the Lord once again?

But opening the door isn’t just a matter of praying a prayer and leaving it at that. It’s about habits and practices. We understand that, because human relationships are like that too. We can tell someone we love them and that they’re important to us, but unless we build into our lives the habits and practices that bring growth, the relationship isn’t going anywhere. We can’t just say the right things and feel the right things – we have to do the right things as well. Or, as Jesus said to his disciples in John 14:15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”. Real love is like that – it always leads to action.

In the Ash Wednesday service, we read these words:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Here are six concrete practices or habits we can build into our lives, as a way of opening the door to Jesus and making him welcome in the depths of our hearts. Six practices, one for each Sunday of the Lenten season – it might almost have been planned as an outline for a sermon series, don’t you think? So let’s start today with the first one: self-examination.

What’s the purpose of self-examination? This is an important question, because God has no interest in introspection for its own sake. Those of us who are introverts can sometimes fall into the trap of spending way too much time looking inside ourselves, while all the time we’re ignoring the needs of the people around us. But self-examination isn’t an end in itself; it’s meant to lead to change. Listen to what the letter of James has to say on the subject:

‘But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing’ (James 1:22-25).

Here’s a beautiful picture of self-examination: looking into the mirror and seeing ourselves as we really are, not because we’re so fascinated with ourselves, but because we need an honest view of our condition, so that we can identify the things that need changing in our lives.

Actually, the phrase ‘self-examination’ can be misleading. It means ‘examination of the self’, but some people take it to mean ‘examination of the self by the self’. And the truth is that if I’m the only one doing the examining, it probably won’t be very helpful, because we human beings are not very good at this. In his spiritual classic The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis talks about how easy it is for us to practice self-examination for half an hour without discovering things about ourselves that are perfectly obvious to those who live with us on a daily basis!

When we make self-examination a do-it-yourself affair, we tend to fall into one of two equal and opposite errors. The first is to make excuses for ourselves. We were tired when we said that. We were frantic with worry. We were going through so much stress at work. We’re only human. All true, maybe, but not too helpful if what we’re actually doing is making excuses to stay as we are.

The other error is to be too hard on ourselves. We look inside ourselves and we see so much selfishness and anger and pride and hate, and we find it hard to believe that God could possibly want to have anything to do with us. We’ve confessed the same sins so many times, and promised to change, but we haven’t. And so self-examination leads not to repentance but to despair.

What’s the solution? Well, listen to these words from Psalm 139:

‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting’ (Psalm 139:23-24).

What we see here is a partnership. I turn to God out of genuine desire for real change in my life. I know I need God’s help, so I open myself up to God’s guidance. I call on the Holy Spirit for help. “Holy Spirit, you are the one who guides us into all truth. Today, please guide me into the truth about myself. Show me the sins I need to repent of. Bring to mind the most important issues you want me to work on. Help me not to be afraid. Give me the courage to face these things, and then guide me as I consider how to make the changes you want me to make”.

Sometimes it helps to have another human being accompany us on this journey – a soul friend, a spiritual companion, a person who can shine a light on our path from a different direction and help us make connections we might not make ourselves. Pastors and priests often do this, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be a pastor or priest. Any wise and experienced older Christian can help us, as long as they’re willing, and as long as they are prepared to be both gentle and honest with us.

So how might we begin to practice regular self-examination?

It helps if we have a clear vision to aim for. Remember that passage from James we read a moment ago, the one about looking in the mirror? James said,

‘But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing’ (James 1:25).

The Scriptures can act as a mirror for us, helping us to see our true spiritual condition. There are some wonderful scripture passages that that are very suitable for this purpose. Many Christians will think about the Ten Commandments, and they aren’t a bad place to start. Personally, though, I find the Lord’s two great commandments most helpful:

‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”. The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Mark 12:29-31).

These two commands are used in our general confession week by week, and in fact that confession can be a very useful model for us for everyday self-examination:

‘Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves’.

We can spend a few minutes in silence, intentionally slowing down and asking the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom and insight. Then we can work our way through the words of this confession, line by line. How have my thoughts been today? Have they been generous or judgemental? Trusting or anxious? Loving or hateful?

What about my words? Have I told the truth, spoken gently, been helpful to people, in the words I’ve spoken or written? Those of us who use the Internet regularly, who leave Facebook status updates and comment on other people’s posts – have we written the sort of thing we’d be glad to share with Jesus?

And what about our actions? The confession talks about sins of omission and sins of commission – in other words, we sin by doing the things we shouldn’t do, but also by not doing the things we should do. Personally, I find the second category troubles me far more! What about that visit I should have paid to someone who was lonely? The loving, helpful action God was asking me to do for someone in need? What about the golden rule, ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Matthew 7:12)?

It’s so easy to excuse ourselves if we only think of sin as specific evil actions – lying, stealing, adultery, violence etc. But Jesus sets the bar a lot higher. I will find my true joy as a human being when I learn to love God with everything in me – heart, soul, mind, and strength – and when I learn to love others in the same way I love and care for myself. So I need to think about myself in the light of those two great commandments. How am I doing? How are you doing?

Personally, I find it helpful each day to spend a few minutes in self-examination using this general confession as a guide. But at this point in time I can hear some people saying, “Where am I possibly going to find the time for this?” And it’s true – some of us are very busy people. We work demanding jobs, we’ve got families at home, and some days it’s all we can do to fulfil all our responsibilities and then grab a couple of minutes at the end of the day before we collapse into bed and sleep the sleep of the just!

So what’s the solution? To do no self-examination at all, because we don’t think we have time for it? I don’t think that’s a viable option. One of the Greek philosophers once said, ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’, and I think the biblical authors would have agreed with that statement.

Let’s be clear – we’re talking about fifteen minutes. I know a lot of very busy people seem to be able to find far more time than that each day to read Facebook updates – not just from friends, but from people they barely know! Can we find time to turn the computer off for a few minutes and turn to the prayer of self-examination? I’m a morning person, so I find it a lot easier to do it at the beginning of the day; others might choose a different time. Maybe you think you can’t do it every day. Alright then – try for two or three times a week to start off with. Two or three times a week is better than not at all!

‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting’ (Psalm 139:23-24). Is it time for us to start putting this biblical prayer into practice? Is it time for us to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit as he shines his searchlight into our hearts? Is it time for us to take the risk of honesty and vulnerability before God, and maybe before another human being as well? I suspect that it is.

But let me leave you with one more thought. For some of us, maybe this is a harsh teaching. Maybe we find this idea scary, like going to the doctor for our annual physical and being afraid of what we’re going to hear. But let’s remember that the Lord who we’re inviting to examine us is the Lord who loves us far more than we love ourselves. He’s the Lord who came and lived and died for us. He’s the Lord who said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

That’s why we’re examining ourselves – so that we can make the changes we need to make in order to discover the way of life and joy and peace and love that Jesus is holding out to us. That’s not a miserable thing! It may involve some hard work, but the end result will be transformation and joy! So let’s not be afraid of self-examination. Let’s take the risk of asking the Holy Spirit to help us to know ourselves as we truly are, so that we can then take the next steps toward becoming the kind of people that he wants us to be – people who will find our true joy and happiness in finding his purposes for us, and putting them into practice. Amen.

Open the Door (a sermon for Ash Wednesday on Revelation 3:20)

One of the most famous verses in the Bible is Revelation 3:20, where Jesus gives a message to a local church in what is now Turkey. The Book of Revelation was written many years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and he is now speaking to the church through his prophet, John, the author of this book. Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. This has been illustrated by a famous painting called ‘The Light of the World’. In the painting Jesus stands beside a gate in a garden wall. He’s wearing a crown of thorns on his head, and in one of his hands he holds a lantern. The other hand is raised, knocking on the gate. The gate is overgrown and has obviously not been opened for a long time, and there is no handle on the outside; it can only be opened from the inside.

This verse has been used in evangelistic talks for centuries, to illustrate the way a person becomes a Christian. Preachers have talked about how Jesus is standing outside our lives, knocking on the door, waiting for us to open up and let him in. But he is a perfect gentleman and won’t force his way in; he waits for us to open the door to him. So to become a Christian is to open the door and let Jesus into our lives as Lord and Saviour.

I know there are hundreds of thousands of people over the years who have responded to this illustration and prayed a prayer opening the door of their hearts to Jesus and letting him in. But this verse has more to say to us than that; in fact, I believe that there are things the Lord wants to say to each one of us tonight through this verse, as we gather together for this Ash Wednesday Eucharist.

You see, in its original context this verse was addressed to a church, a group of Christians in a place called Laodicea. The members of that church had allowed their love for the Lord to grow lukewarm. So Jesus speaks to them, and this is part of what he has to say:

“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing’. You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked… I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:15-17, 19-20).

So this passage makes clear to us is that it is possible to be a genuine Christian – a person who knows God personally through Christ, a person who has opened the door of their life to Christ and committed themselves to him their Lord and Saviour – it is possible to be a genuine Christian and then to somehow let our light burn dim, so that Jesus is no longer welcome in the centre of our lives. We get distracted by other stuff, like those Christians in Laodicea, who were rich and prosperous and thought they needed nothing. Maybe, like the seed that fell among the thorns in Jesus’ parable of the sower, we find that even though we have heard the word of God, still ‘the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing’ (Mark 4:19).

This probably isn’t something that happens because of a major decision we make to disobey the commands of God and the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s far more likely to be a series of small things, so small that we barely notice them. C.S. Lewis talks about this in his superb little book The Screwtape Letters. Do you know that book? It’s a fictional series of letters from a senior devil to a junior devil on the art of temptation. In one of the letters Screwtape, the senior devil, cautions Wormwood, the junior devil, about his desire to persuade his ‘patient’ to commit some huge sin. The danger in that, Screwtape says, is that it can so easily backfire; the patient will wake up, see what he’s doing, and repent. It’s far, far safer to tempt him into a series of seemingly harmless and insignificant actions and attitudes that have the gradual effect of taking him out of his orbit around God. Screwtape says, ‘Adultery is unnecessary if cards will do the trick’.

We may not agree with Lewis’ assumption that playing cards could be a sin, but maybe we need to ask ourselves what other seemingly harmless habits have had that effect on us – gradually taking us out of our orbit around God, so that the Saviour who was once the joy of our lives slowly, imperceptibly, becomes ‘old news’ to us. Adultery is unnecessary if blogging will do the trick! All that matters to the enemy of our souls is that we slowly fall out of love with God. If he can persuade us to do that without noticing it, all the better for him.

So Lent is a time for us to wake up to our true spiritual condition and to do something about it. In our epistle for tonight Paul writes to a group of Christians in Corinth, all of whom had at one time or another heard the gospel message and responded to it by committing their lives to Christ in baptism; presumably, they were already reconciled to God. And yet he finds it necessary to say to them in 2 Corinthians 5:20: ‘So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God’. In other words, ‘Wake up! Realize that even though you thought you were still close to God, in fact you have moved away without even realizing that you were doing it. Turn around and come back to God, because he is ready and willing to receive you back’.

That, of course, is what Jesus said to those Christians in Laodicea as well. ‘Be earnest, therefore, and repent!’ (Revelation 3:19). In other words, ‘Be serious about this! Turn away from your lukewarmness and your little compromises, and come back to your first love for Jesus and his gospel’.

In our service tonight, in a few minutes I will read these words from the liturgy:

We begin this holy season by remembering our need for repentance, and for the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I want to suggest to you, in the light of these scripture readings that I’ve shared with you tonight, that this repentance isn’t primarily about individual sins that we commit, in and of themselves. It’s primarily about our attitude toward God, and toward our Lord Jesus Christ. Has our love for Jesus gone lukewarm, so that it makes him feel like spewing us out of his mouth? That’s the big issue for us, isn’t it?

We know how that works in marriage. We fall in love with someone, and they become the centre of our world. We spend every waking moment thinking about them, and we begrudge every hour we have to spend apart. We look forward to the day when we can commit our lives to each other and live together as husband and wife.

And at first, our expectations are fulfilled; we can’t believe the privilege we have of sharing our life with this wonderful person who we love so much. But then, as the years go by, our love starts to cool off. Life goes on; we get jobs and lose jobs, kids come and take up our time and attention, we have to pay a mortgage and do daily errands and so on and so on. And before we know it, we’ve lost sight of the love that gave us so much joy when we first discovered it. We start to take each other for granted, and to skip our times together and the long conversations we used to enjoy so much.

So let me ask you: have you done that with Jesus? Have you allowed your love for him to grow lukewarm? Have you allowed yourself to neglect your times together? Have you become complacent about doing things that you know are not pleasing to him? Have you become slow to do the things that bring him joy?

Yes, you have – and so have I. That’s why we’re here tonight, and that’s why we have this season of Lent. It’s not to kick off our annual time of giving up chocolate or coffee or sugar in our tea or whatever. Rather, it’s a time for us for us to wake up to our spiritual condition, to repent of our lukewarmness, and to consciously change course so that, once again, our life revolves around the one who loved us and gave himself for us, our Lord Jesus Christ.

We know – because we’ve experienced it before – that this road leads to joy. Repentance is hard, but the motivation is the best – the joy of knowing Christ and enjoying fellowship with him. When we try to get the best of both worlds – living as a Christian but keeping our foot in the old life as well – we end up getting the worst of both worlds instead. But when we learn to live the new life of Jesus, we’re learning to live in harmony with the way God created us in the first place. And when we live with Christ at the centre of our lives, we’re fulfilled God’s original intention for us. This is a hard road, yes, but it’s also a joyful road.

Jesus says, ‘There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’ (Luke 15:10). And so he says to you and me tonight, “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. His greatest desire is for us to live in fellowship with him. He created us for the joy of knowing us, and he will not be satisfied until we also experience that joy.

So – shall we open the door?