Here’s a random Lent thought for today. It may or may not have anything to do with COVID-19.
One of my favourite coffee mugs (not that I own it myself, but I’ve seen it) is the one that says ‘Jesus is coming – look busy!’
Here’s my thought for the day. Jesus is not impressed with busyness. Jesus is impressed with love.
This is a hard lesson for us to learn, because we’re formed by a culture that idolizes workaholics. And this culture is creeping insidiously into the church, so that we’re all being brainwashed into thinking that the more activities a church puts on, the higher its level of spirituality must be. If you don’t have that stressed and exhausted look on your face, you can’t possibly be doing everything God wants you to do, right?
But how does that work right now, when we’re frantically shutting down our activities for fear we’ll infect each other? Should we just move everything online and get just as busy as we were before? Or should we take a serious look at why we think Jesus wants us to be so busy?
Years ago, in a letter to a child, C.S. Lewis gave some wise advice that I’ve tried to remember. I’m quoting from memory, so this won’t be exact. Lewis told his young correspondent to remember that there were really only three kinds of things she had to do: (1) Things that must be done, (2) things that should be done, and (3) things she enjoyed doing. ‘Things that must be done’ include brushing your teeth, doing a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, cleaning the house and so on. ‘Things that should be done’ mean the ordinary rules of Christian morality. ‘Things that you enjoy doing’ – well, over to you!
Busyness is not godliness. Busyness might just be nothing more than busyness. I’m convinced that my Christian life works best when I do a few things and do them well, rather than scattering my energy like buckshot in a hundred different directions. Remember: Jesus is not impressed by busyness; Jesus is impressed by love.
I want to begin this morning by reminding you of a very famous Old Testament story: the story of King David and his adultery with Bathsheba. David was the first great king of ancient Israel. A thousand years before the time of Jesus, God took him from shepherding his father’s sheep, and brought him by a long and tortuous path to the place where he became king of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah.
David was a faithful man but he wasn’t perfect. We’re told in 2 Samuel 11 that one day while David’s army was off fighting a war on his behalf, he went for a walk on the roof of his palace. The roof was high, and as he looked down over the neighbouring houses he saw a woman taking a bath in her walled garden close by. He liked what he saw, so he sent for her and had sex with her. It turned out that her name was Bathsheba, and her husband Uriah the Hittite was off at the front fighting for David.
I think we can assume that Bathsheba had no choice about accepting David’s advances. He was the king and she was one of the king’s subjects. He was a man and she was a woman. He was a native Judean and she was married to a Hittite foreigner, even if he was one of David’s soldiers. All the power structures were tilted against her.
So David got what he wanted; so far so good, from his point of view. Of course, so far everything had been done in secret. But then Bathsheba sent him a message that she was pregnant. This presented David with a major problem. After all, what he had done was against the law of God, and he had a reputation to uphold as a king who loved God. Also, Bathsheba was in danger, because on the books the penalty for adultery was death. Once again, I think we can assume she’d be in greater danger of that penalty than David.
David’s first plan was to bring Uriah home from the war as fast as possible and get him into bed with his wife. So he sent for Uriah, asked him for a report, and then sent him home for the night. However, to his horror he discovered the next day that Uriah had not gone home; he felt guilty about enjoying the delights of home when all his buddies were still in the field of battle, so he slept on the steps of the palace. The next night David tried getting him drunk, but it still didn’t work.
So David went to plan ‘B’. He sent Uriah back to the war and also sent a message to his general, Joab, telling him to let Uriah lead a charge and then leave him to his fate. This is what happened, and Uriah was killed. After the period of mourning was over, David took Bathsheba as his wife, she bore him a son, and that was that.
Except that God had been watching. And God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David with his sin. I can’t go into detail this morning about the masterful way in which Nathan did this, but eventually David was forced to admit that what he had done was wrong, and he came to a true repentance for his multiple sins.
So here we have David, called by God to be King of his people Israel, and to lead them in God’s ways. But in this instance, he was far from being the leader God wanted him to be. We see what was to all intents and purposes an act of rape, abuse of power, and organized murder. This is the bleak reality of the human condition. During Lent we remember that God has called us to be a holy people, consecrated to him. We’re called to live as a colony of heaven with a distinctive lifestyle, and to learn to think and live like our heavenly Father. But the unfortunate truth is that we fail regularly, because we’re infected with the disease of sin, and all too often it has us in its grip.
How do we deal with this? That’s the theme of Psalm 32, our psalm for today, which may have been written by David. Let’s start by looking at verses 3-4:
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Here we have someone who has sinned, who knows deep in their heart that what they’ve done is wrong, but they won’t admit it. Perhaps they even deny it to themselves—“There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?” We humans have a great capacity for self-deception.
Let’s say this person is me, and I know in my heart that what I’ve done is wrong, but I don’t dare confess it to God. After all, if I’m honest and I want an ongoing relationship with God, confessing it would have to lead to doing something about it. So every time I go to God in prayer, I avoid the subject, but I find it still dominates my thoughts. In fact, it introduces a barrier between God and me in my times of prayer.
Or perhaps I’ve confessed my sin to God, but I also know God wants me to put something right with someone else who’s involved. I resist doing that, for obvious reasons. It’s a blow to my pride! We can cheerfully proclaim in theory “We’re all sinners!” but it’s another thing entirely to go up to someone we’ve sinned against and say, “I’m the sinner who has hurt you, and I’m sorry”. But we have to do that, if we really want to move forward.
Verse 5 says, ‘Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.’ And in verses 1-2 the writer comments‘Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.’Obviously, we’re being encouraged to come clean and confess our sins to God, so we can enjoy the benefit of forgiveness and peace.
In the gospels there’s a story of Jesus eating one day at the home of a Pharisee. ‘A woman who had led a sinful life’ came in, threw herself at his feet, washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. The Pharisees grumbled that if Jesus was really a prophet, he’d know what kind of person she was and wouldn’t let her carry on like that. But Jesus took a different view. He rebuked those who were self-righteous, but he commended the woman for her honesty, and he forgave her sins.
Some of you will be familiar with the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. In step four, the alcoholic takes what’s called ‘a searching and fearless moral inventory’ – in other words, looks at their life and is honest about where they’ve gone wrong. Step five goes on to say, ‘We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to one other human being the exact nature of our wrongs.’ In steps six and seven they ask God to remove those defects, and in steps eight and nine they make a list of people they have harmed, and they try make amends to those people.
This is a very thorough process, and not a bad guide for us during Lent. We could really sum up most of Psalm 32 in the words of Step Five: ‘We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs’. Let’s unpack this step for a minute.
Admitting the nature of our wrongs ‘to ourselves’ is often the toughest part. The human capacity for self-deceit is very strong. Changing it means looking at myself, not as I wish I was, but as I really am, and accepting that this is a true picture of me. This is not some other sinner I’m looking at here; this is me, warts and all.
Then comes admitting the nature of our wrongs ‘to God’. With many sins, this is the only confession that’s necessary. We admit what we’ve done, repent and ask for forgiveness, and we receive it. We’re pardoned, we’re free, and we experience the joy the psalmist is talking about at the beginning of this psalm: ‘Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered’ (v.1).
But this confession to God isn’t always enough to bring us the peace we’re looking for. There are two exceptions which spring to my mind immediately.
The first is sins in which others have been hurt. When our actions have hurt others, we also need to go to them, ask for forgiveness, and make amends or restitution if necessary. The story of David and Bathsheba doesn’t make it clear how David went about doing this. We do know that the child they conceived died while he was still a baby. But the story in 2 Samuel doesn’t give us a lot of information about their relationship after Bathsheba joined David’s harem. Possibly he was so accustomed to the power structures of his day that it didn’t occur to him that he needed to ask her forgiveness too, and make amends. We just don’t know. But we do know that in our case, if someone else has been hurt, it’s absolutely necessary to do all we can to make things right.
The other exception is sins from which we can get no sense of freedom. We’ve confessed, we’ve asked for forgiveness, we’ve tried to believe the promises of scripture, but we still can’t seem to find the peace we’re looking for. In that case we need to go on to the next part of Step Five: admitting the exact nature of our wrongs to another human being. In the Christian tradition this is done by confessing our sins to God in the presence of another person, often a pastor or priest, and then hearing that person declare God’s forgiveness to us. For many people this is a powerful experience of grace.
Understandably, there’s considerable resistance to this idea! Some people say, “I can confess my sins to God alone – I don’t need a priest interfering!” My response is “Fine – you obviously don’t need the confessional.” But I’d also invite you to ask yourself if you’re being entirely honest before you dismiss it. I’ve learned from experience over the years that there are some people who definitely need this further step, because they’re consumed by a sense of guilt that no amount of confession to God seems to be able to get rid of.
So in this psalm the writer is encouraging us to take the risk of being honest—with ourselves, with other people, and with God. In verses 8-9 he says
‘I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle’.
So often, these words describe me perfectly: a stubborn, stupid mule! I know what God wants me to do, but I don’t trust him! All I can see ahead if I follow his direction is pain and humiliation; I can’t see beyond that to the joy of forgiveness and peace. My stubbornness has opened up a gap between God and me, and I’m the one suffering from that gap. But when I come to my senses, and repent and obey—what a difference!
So let me conclude this morning by asking you three questions.
Firstly, are you being honest with yourself? Is there something you need to admit to yourself? Is it time to stop running from the voice of God and to say to yourself, “I have sinned, and I need to repent and turn back to God’s way”?
Secondly, are you being honest with God? Or is there a growing distance because of a sin you know God wants you to do something about? Don’t put it off; the longer you leave it, the worse it will be. One of the most telling features of the story of David and Bathsheba is that every time David tried another way of running away from God, he only dug himself in deeper and made things worse! Let’s not be like him! Let’s turn back to God, admit what we’ve done, and ask for forgiveness and strength so we can become the people God wants us to be. When we do that, we can be assured of God’s forgiveness.
Thirdly, are you being honest with others? Is there someone you need to apologize and make amends to? I know what it’s like to struggle against this! But the problem is, God really does hold all the cards; we won’t get any peace until we do what he wants. But when we finally give in, stop resisting God, and take that step of talking to the other person—then we’ll be at peace. It will be hard, but in the end, we’ll be glad we did it.
Let me conclude by reading verses 1-2 again, this time from the New Living Translation:
Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sin is put out of sight!
Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty.
May God give us grace to put these things into practice, so we can experience this joy for ourselves. Amen.
Many years ago when I was the minister in charge at All Saints’ Anglican Church in Aklavik, NWT, I got a phone call from an older lady in our church whose first name was Winnie. She had a quick question for me: she wanted to know if Lent had started yet. I said, “No, it doesn’t start ‘til next week.” She replied, “Good, because my kids have really been giving me a rough time, and I want to give them s____!”
Well, I have to admit that abstaining from giving your kids s_____ for Lent is probably more beneficial than giving up sugar in your coffee! But if it’s a bad thing to give your kids a rough time during Lent, why isn’t it a bad thing at other times of the year? And if it’s actually not a bad thing, why would you give it up for Lent in the first place? I don’t know about you, but I have a hard enough time learning to do the things God has told me to do, without adding a few optional extras for good measure!
Of all the seasons of the Christian year, Lent is probably one of the ones with the most traditions attached to it. Even people who don’t go to church sometimes give things up for Lent—chocolate, alcohol, sugar in your coffee—and some people even use it as an excuse for kick-starting their weight loss program! Years ago we used to have Lenten self-denial folders, or Lent boxes; the custom was to donate a quarter a day for every day of Lent, and at the end, you’d give it to the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund. Nowadays, of course, a quarter buys a lot less than it did in 1975; if we’re thinking of denying ourselves, we might want to ramp it up a bit!
But where does it all come from? Why observe Lent in the first place?
In the early centuries of our faith the season of Lent actually began as part of the baptism of new Christians. In those days most Christians were converts who were baptized as adults. In the Bible, that happened very quickly, but as time went by the process stretched out, and by about the third century it could take as long as three years to become a Christian. You’d first need to be accepted as a learner—a catechumen, they were called—and then would come a long process of learning the Christian way of life according to the teachings of Jesus. Later on you’d be taught the doctrines of Christianity, and then, at last, you’d be baptized by total immersion, usually at the Easter vigil, which in those days actually lasted all night long.
Of course, as the new Christians got closer to the night of their baptism, their excitement would be growing. This was the moment when they would die with Christ and be raised with him to a whole new life with God! This was the night when their whole lives would change forever! They wanted to be as well-prepared for it as they could possibly be. And so gradually, in the church, the custom grew of observing the last few weeks of their catechumenate as especially strict times of prayer and fasting. At first it was just the baptismal candidates who observed it, but later, all the members of the church began to join in too. They thought of Jesus and his forty days of fasting in the desert before his ministry began, and they tried to imitate him so they could get closer to God and listen to God’s voice.
But notice this: Lent wasn’t a thing in itself. Lent was related to Jesus. In their baptism, the new Christians would be dying with Christ and rising with him to a whole new way of life. Lent was a way of getting ready for that. Those who were already Christians were wanting to follow Jesus more closely in his time in the desert, being tested by the devil. Like him, they were trying to remove distractions so they could listen more closely for God’s word. Fasting wasn’t a thing in itself; it was a way of removing one of the distractions so they could focus on listening to God.
So we need to be careful about this. If our way of observing Lent isn’t connected to Jesus, and following Jesus, then we’re in serious danger of making Lent itself a distraction from discipleship. And that would be a tragedy.
If we go back to the New Testament and think of the life of St. Paul, we know that he was always a very religious person. He tells us he was raised as a Pharisee, and so he paid careful attention to every little detail of the Law of God. This wasn’t just moral laws; it involved all the Sabbath regulations, and all the laws about what foods you could and couldn’t eat, and how you prepared them. It included proper observance of all the Temple rituals – offering the right sacrifices, with the right ceremonies, at the right time.
How does Paul describe himself at that time? Listen to these words from his letter to the Philippians:
‘Indeed, if others have reasons for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more! I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without a fault’ (Philippians 3.4b-6 NLT).
Paul sounds like quite an impressive person! In his day he would have been seen as an admirable Pharisee, very religious, very devout. But years later, when he looked back on those days, he had a completely different point of view.
‘I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’ (vv.7-8a NLT).
And he goes on to say,
‘I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection of the dead.’ (vv.10-11 NLT)
‘I want to know Christ’. Surely this ought to be right at the heart of what Lent is all about for us. Giving things up isn’t a thing in itself. Becoming a better person isn’t even a thing in itself. Everything we do needs to be related to this central goal: ‘I want to know Christ.’ Notice that Paul isn’t talking about information; he’s talking about relationship. He doesn’t say, “I want to know about Christ,” but “I want to know Christ.”
Let’s think for a minute about this whole business of ‘knowing Christ’. A moment’s thought will make it clear to us that knowing Christ is very different from any other human relationship. We can’t see Christ. We can’t hear him with our ears. The contact we have with him is mystical and spiritual; when we say that we sensed his presence, it’s hard to define exactly what we mean by that. In one of our songs we sing ‘Hold me close; put your arms around me’, but very few honest Christians will claim to have actually felt the arms of Christ around them. What we’re talking about it something more elusive than that.
So how do we grow in it? How can we know Christ better, when it’s so hard to define exactly what we mean by knowing Christ?
Let me give you an illustration. In the days when Jesus walked the earth, imagine someone coming to one of his disciples, and saying “I want to get to know your Master Jesus. How can I do that?” And the disciple might reply, “Good, great! Tomorrow he’s going to be preaching at the synagogue in Cana, and then for the rest of the day he’ll be teaching and healing the sick at Jonas the carpenter’s house by the water front. Later on in the evening when things quieten down, he’ll have time for a quiet cup of wine with one or two people who want to ask him questions. For the rest of the week he’ll be doing much the same kind of thing in the Cana area. I’ll be glad to introduce you to him if you like.”
“Oh no”, our friend replies, “I can’t go to where he is and join in his activities. I’m a busy person; I’ve got goals I’m trying to meet in my life. I was hoping he’d be able to come over to my office tomorrow and talk to me. I’m free between the sixth and seventh hours.”
What do you think are that man’s chances of actually getting to know Jesus better? In fact, how badly do you think he really wants to get to know Jesus? If he could honestly say, with Paul, “I want to know Christ,” then surely he ought to be willing to go wherever he needs to go, at whatever time he needs to go there, so he can meet Jesus and get the ball rolling?
“Well,” you’re thinking, “How does this apply to me today? Jesus doesn’t exactly have a street address, does he?” No, he doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t follow him. For us 21stcentury Christians, following Jesus doesn’t mean walking behind him on the road as he travels around Galilee. It means following the path of life he’s given us—following his example and putting his teaching into practice—so that we become more Christlike.
So this is really what Lent is all about. This is why we pray and fast, and deny ourselves, and try to be more generous. These things aren’t good things in themselves; they’re good because they’re things Jesus taught us to do, and as we practice them in faith, we’re getting closer to Jesus. That’s our focus.
So as we begin Lent, let me suggest that we use it this year as a time to intentionally focus on Jesus. On Sunday we thought about the Transfiguration story and the words of God the Father to the disciples: “This is my Son, the Beloved…listen to him.” I suggested that one good way to listen to Jesus would be to pick one of the Gospels and read through it, slowly and prayerfully, through the season of Lent. What is Jesus saying to us in this passage? And how would we receive his words as God’s message to us? How specifically would we put them into practice?
“I want to know Christ.” “This is my Son…Listen to him.” So as we go through Lent, let’s make it our goal to listen to him and to come to know him better.
This won’t always be easy for us. Sometimes when we read the gospels and listen to the words of Jesus, we find them so challenging that we’re tempted to give up. “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you.” “Forgive seventy times seven.” “Don’t store up for yourself treasures on earth.” His teaching is so different from the way of life we’ve become accustomed to in Canada in 2020! We might be tempted to say, “Lord, can’t I just give up sugar in my tea?”
But no, we can’t. Jesus is leading us in a process of inner transformation more demanding than anything we’ve ever tried to do before. But the result will be amazing. The result will be a person who loves God with their whole heart, and loves their neighbour as they love themselves, not because it’s a law, but because they want to—because they love doing God’s will and can’t imagine doing anything different. That’s what knowing Christ and becoming Christlike are all about. And that’s how the world will be changed.
So let me close by reminding you again of Paul’s words to the Philippians:
‘I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection of the dead.’ (Philippians 3.10-11 NLT)
May it be so for us, through Lent and beyond. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As I write this post, Ash Wednesday is five days away, and the discussion on social media is starting to heat up. What are you going to do for Lent? What are you going to give up? Should we give up social media? Read a Lent book? Give extra money to the poor?
Maggi Dawn pointed out years ago that this is actually a very modern discussion. For the vast majority of Christian history, the Church told you what to give up for Lent (mainly meat and dairy, in case you’re interested), and since everyone in the community was giving it up with you, there was lots of support! Nowadays we’re much more individualistic, and as a result we’re so spoiled for choice that often just making a decision can be very difficult.
One thing that’s occurred to me this year is that I tend to gravitate toward Lent disciplines that are attractive to my personality type. I’m an introvert, so my Lent disciplines tend to be private disciplines: prayer, fasting, reading, and so on. I tend to focus on my personal relationship with God (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength”), but I don’t often take on Lent disciplines that focus on my relationship with others (“Love your neighbour as yourself”).
So here’s a thought: if Lent involves embracing a bit of discomfort for the sake of our own growth, then maybe we should consider Lent disciplines that aren’t easy for someone of our personality type. Maybe this year I shouldn’t focus on personal stuff at all. Maybe I should think of some creative ways to love and serve my neighbour (whether that’s a family member, a church member, someone in my neighbourhood, my music community, someone in the developing world etc.).
For me, I know this means spending time with people. In the end, this is the most valuable gift we can give to one another. There’s a reason we call it ‘spending time’; once it’s spent, it’s spent! You’re never going to get that hour of your life back. So it’s a real act of love to spend that time with someone else, rather than on yourself and your own amusements.
So maybe this Lent, introverts like me should be looking for Lent disciplines that push us out of ourselves a little more. And maybe extroverts should be looking to embrace solitude and silence and longer times of personal prayer.
A few weeks ago I read Brené Brown’s excellent book The Gifts of Imperfection. One of the themes that runs though the book is her triad of the three components of Wholeheartedness: ‘Courage, Compassion, and Connection’. Courage, to her, often means the courage to speak what’s really on your heart, honestly, without giving in to fear. Compassion is not so much about feeling compassion as it is acting in compassionate ways (and it also includes paying proper attention to boundaries, so that we can be more effective in that). And we grow in our sense of connection by actually going out and connecting with people.
I like that. Looks like a good plan for Lent for me. Now to firm it up with some concrete ways of putting it into practice.
Today I want to tell you a story about two horses.
As we’ve been going through Lent this year, we’ve been taking C.S. Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ stories as our spiritual guide. These stories weren’t written as textbooks about following Jesus, but they’re full of insight into what it means to be Christian disciples. Each week we’re taking one or more characters from the Narnia books and asking ‘What do these characters have to teach us about following Jesus?’
We began on the first Sunday in Lent with Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure from Narnia. We learned that he’s not a tame lion and he’s definitely not safe, but he’s good. Aslan shows us what Jesus is like and teaches us to approach him with absolute confidence in his love for us, but also absolute obedience to his authority.
Then last week we thought about Eustace Scrubb. He was a boy who became a dragon because of his selfishness and greed, and he could only be changed back into a boy by the power of Aslan. Eustace taught us that only the power of Christ can transform us into the people God wants us to be.
This week our characters are two talking horses from the book The Horse and His Boy. Their names are ‘Bree’ and ‘Hwin’. Hwin is a gentle mare, and Bree is a proud and fierce war horse. His full name is actually ‘Breehy-Hinny-Hooey-Hah’ but we won’t mention that again! The title of the book, The Horse and His Boy, comes from something Bree says in the story. He points out that in Narnia talking horses are free and not slaves of humans, so he’s not Shasta’s horse. You might just as well say that Shasta is ‘his’ boy!
The Horse and His Boy opens in Calormen, a huge land south of Narnia. There we meet a boy called Shasta, who is the adopted son of a poor fisherman. One night a great Tarkaan, or noble lord, demands to spend the night at their house. Later in the evening Shasta overhears him talking with the fisherman about how much he’ll pay to buy the boy as a slave.
That same night Shasta discovers by accident that the Tarkaan’s horse, Bree, is a talking horse. Talking animals are completely unknown in Calormen, although they’re common up north in Narnia. Shasta and Bree decide to escape together to Narnia and freedom, and they manage to pull it off. When they’ve been on their way for a few days, they’re pursued by hunting lions and are forced into the company of another talking horse—the mare Hwin and her rider, a young and proud daughter of a Lord, the Tarkheena Aravis. The book goes on to tell of the adventures the two horses and the two children have on their way to Narnia.
Bree explains that he was stolen from the land of Narnia while he was a foal, and has lived in Calormen for years, ‘hiding my true nature and pretending to be dumb and witless like their horses’. Along the way he’s become very proud of himself. He’s often concerned about how he appears to others, and even though he wants to get back to Narnia, he has worries about it, too. He’s been away for a long time and he’s afraid he might not know the proper protocol! For instance, one of the things Bree really loves is getting down on his back and having a good roll. Shasta sees him doing it one day and bursts out laughing. Immediately Bree gets worried:
“You don’t think, do you,” said Bree, “that it might be a thing talking horses never do—a silly, clownish trick I’ve learned from the dumb ones? It would be dreadful to find, when I get back to Narnia, that I’ve picked up a lot of low, bad habits.”
A little later on the journey the horses and their humans have to go through the huge city of Tashbaan. They’re worried it’ll be obvious to everyone who looks at them that the horses have come from rich houses, and everyone will think Shasta and Aravis are horse thieves. So they decide the horses will have to be made muddy and bedraggled, with their tails cut short and ragged. When he hears about this plan, Bree objects strenuously:
“My dear madam,” said Bree. “Have you pictured to yourself how very disagreeable it would be to arrive in Narnia in that condition?”
“Well,” said Hwin humbly (she was a very sensible mare), “the main thing is to get there.”
For Bree, arriving in Narnia in a bedraggled condition would give a bad first impression, and he wants to be seen by everyone as the fine stallion he believes he is. In contrast, Hwin speaks humbly and modestly. For C.S. Lewis, to be humble is to be sensible and to have a realistic view of yourself.
When I read about Bree he shows me some very unwelcome truths about myself. I realize in many ways I’m like him. I wish I wasn’t, but I am. I’d like to be able to say, “I don’t really care what other people think of me”, but in fact I care a great deal. I notice there are many times when I do things or say things or wear things or join things, not because I like them or because I think they’re what God wants for me, but because I think they’ll make a good impression on other people. People will be impressed, and if they give me the right amount of respect and attention, I’ll be able to feel that I’m somebody after all. Perhaps I’m the only one who does this, but I don’t think so. I expect we’ve all done it from time to time.
In Philippians 2:3-4 Paul says: ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.’Bree’s pride takes the form of ‘conceit’, but there’s another proud character in The Horse and His Boy—the Tarkheena Aravis, the young noblewoman who is escaping to Narnia with Hwin to get away from a forced marriage. Aravis’ pride takes the form of ‘looking to her own interests and forgetting the interests of others’—especially people of a lower social class than her. For instance, she tells how, when she was escaping from her home, she drugged her stepmother’s maidservant so she wouldn’t prevent her escape. Shasta asks what happened to the maidservant.
“Doubtless she was beaten for sleeping late,” said Aravis coolly. “But she was a tool and spy of my stepmother’s. I am very glad they should beat her.”
Aravis sees her maidservant as inferior and doesn’t care about her suffering; she’s just a tool. But to Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure in the Narnia stories, this incident is very important. Later in the story he pursues Aravis and strikes her across the back with his claws. When he explains to her why this happened, this is what he says:
‘The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like’.
Bree needs to learn not to think of himself as better than others, but Aravis needs to learn to think of others and not just herself. We’ve seen how Aravis learns her lesson, but Bree’s lesson is interesting, too. He likes to come across as a big brave stallion, but there’s one chink in his armour: he’s terrified of lions. We first see this the night he and Shasta meet Hwin and Aravis. They hear the roar of a lion, and Bree runs in terror. Later on he says to Shasta:
“Shasta, I’m ashamed of myself. I’m just as frightened as a common, dumb Calormene horse… I don’t feel like a talking horse at all. I don’t mind swords and lances and arrows but I can’t bear – those creatures.
But Bree isn’t really brought face to face with the truth about himself until we get toward the end of the story. The children and the horses are approaching the land of Narnia, just ahead of Prince Rabadash who is bringing an invading army. A lion pursues them—it later turns out to be Aslan, who wants to give them the extra speed of fear so that they can warn people in time about the invaders. The lion leaps at Aravis, and Bree runs away in terror, but little Shasta jumps off and runs back to help Aravis. The lion runs away, and the four of them all reach safety in the home of a Hermit, but the experience has been a revelation for them all. Bree finally sees the truth about himself, and later he says to the Hermit:
“I who called myself a war-horse and boasted of a hundred fights, to be beaten by a little human boy—a child, a mere foal, who had never held a sword nor had any good nurture or example in his life!”
Proud Bree finds this truth devastating. He feels he’s lost everything, and he talks of going back to Calormen. But the Hermit of the Southern March is a wise man, and he sees the reality of the situation. He says to Bree:
“My good horse, you’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit…If you are really as humbled as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses”.
Bree’s problem has been that he thinks he’s more than he really is. He believed a lie about himself, and now he’s been forced to accept the truth. The truth isn’t that he’s a bad horse; it’s just that he’s not quite the star of the show he believed he was. Humility means accepting the truth about ourselves—that like every other person in this fallen world, we’re a combination of strengths and weaknesses, no more or less important than anyone else.
A moment ago I referred to two verses from Philippians chapter two. In many ways, the story of The Horse and His Boy could be a commentary on this chapter. Let me read to you the first five verses:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Bree needs to learn the truth of verse 3. He acts out of conceit and sees himself as better than others. But we also get the sense that there’s a basic insecurity in him; he’s always wondering what others think of him and he’s terrified they might not think well of him. That rings true to me, because I’ve noticed that many people who come across as proud and arrogant actually have a deep insecurity inside. They have an inner need for attention and praise, and that’s why they want people to look up to them.
Aravis, on the other hand, needs to learn the truth of verse 4. She grew up thinking only of her own interests and not the interests of others—especially the ‘others’ in a lower social class than her. She doesn’t worry about her maid’s sufferings; all she cares about is getting away. She’s not being intentionally malicious. This is just the way she’s been taught to think, and she needs to be retrained to see others as equally important and significant as her.
The solution to both these forms of pride is in the rest of the passage:
‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:5-8).
Jesus is the one who has the highest claim on a position of respect and importance. And yet he humbled himself, became one of us human beings, and went so far as to die on the Cross for us. Can you ever imagine Jesus asking the question, “Is anyone noticing me?” Jesus didn’t need to ask that question. At his baptism he’d heard the voice of his Father in heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Once he knew that truth about himself, it didn’t matter whether people noticed him or not.
This is the secret of true humility: coming to believe the truth about yourself as God sees you. All of us are children in the Father’s family, no more and no less. Each of us is no more important and no less important than any of God’s other children. So the important thing is not that the other children admire you, but that the Father loves you. Once you believe that, you can put your mental mirrors away and stop worrying about how you look and what sort of impression you’re making on others. Instead of looking to others to bolster our low self-esteem, we can concentrate on loving them, because God loves them, and we’re the children of God, and it’s in the nature of the children of God to imitate what their Father is doing.
C.S. Lewis’ Narnia story The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read in a children’s book, or in any other book for that matter: ‘There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb—and he almost deserved it.’
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a wonderful story that works on at least two levels. On the surface, we have a classic tale about a sea voyage and the adventures of the sailors along the way. But on a deeper level we have a story about the transformation of Eustace Clarence Scrubb. Eustace starts off as a thoroughly self-centred and unpleasant character, but as the story progresses, he’s gradually changed into a person who thinks of others and has a more realistic view of himself. And this transformation is accomplished through the power of Aslan the Lion.
This is a very important theme for us as we continue our journey through Lent. C.S. Lewis is our guide, and especially his Narnia stories. Last week we thought about the character of Aslan the Lion. We discovered he’s definitely not a tame lion, and neither is he safe: “Course he isn’t safe!” Mr. Beaver exclaimed, “But he’s good!” Aslan helps us understand our Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us with a love that’s absolute and uncompromising. His love isn’t just about being nice to us. It’s about telling us the truth about ourselves and helping us become more than we are right now, even when that growth is hard and unpleasant. We approach this Jesus with absolute confidence in his love for us, but also in absolute obedience to his authority.
This week we have to grapple with the subject of change, and how change takes place. We have to look at the reality of sin, and how sin has a literally monstrous effect on us. We have to realize how hard it is for us to change—in fact, unless we have the help of Christ, change isn’t going to happen. And we have to look at some of the effects of that change when it finally comes about.
So—back to Eustace. Eustace is the cousin of the four Pevensie children we met last week: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. Chronologically, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the fifth of the seven Narnia stories, and by this time Edmund and Lucy have a lot of experience with Narnia. Now, however, they’re back in ourworld, and they find they have to spend their summer with their cousin Eustace. Lewis lets us know right from the start what sort of person Eustace is:
Eustace Clarence liked animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card…Deep down inside him he liked bossing and bullying…He knew that there are dozens of ways to give people a bad time if you are in your own home and they are only visitors. He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators.
In other words Eustace is a thoroughly selfish person, intensely practical, with absolutely no imagination—which, for Lewis, was one of the worst things you could say about someone. He also enjoys inflicting misery on other people, and he’s gotten quite good at it.
In the first couple of chapters of the book the three children are transported magically back to the land of Narnia. There they find themselves on the Dawn Treader, a Narnian ship on which King Caspian is on a voyage into unknown seas to find seven lost lords. The Dawn Treader is a sailing ship, and Eustace loses no time in starting to criticize it. He ‘kept on boasting about liners and motor boats and aeroplanes and submarines.’ Of course, boasting is all about trying to seem better and more important than other people.
We get more opportunities to find out what a self-centred character Eustace is as the story continues. One of the finest characters in the entire Narnian series is Reepicheep, a valiant and chivalrous talking mouse who comes across as a sort of ‘D’Artagnan’ figure from The Three Musketeers. One day Eustace finds Reepicheep perched on the figurehead of the ship:
As soon as (Eustace) saw the long tail hanging down…he thought it would be delightful to catch hold of it, swing Reepicheep round by it once or twice upside down, then run away and laugh.
Unfortunately things don’t quite work out the way Eustace thinks they will, as Reepicheep is just as good with his sword upside down as he is right way up! On another occasion, when the ship is becalmed and the water is running low, Eustace makes excuses to try to get more than his fair share of the water supply. In these and many other ways Eustace makes a thorough nuisance of himself through his selfishness and self-centredness.
Eventually, after a severe storm, the Dawn Treader arrives at an island where they can get fresh water and repair the ship. Eustace slips off into the hills by himself, and comes by chance to the cave of a dragon. Of course, he finds the cave filled with treasure. I say ‘of course’, because you’re all very imaginative people, and so you know that treasure is exactlywhat you expect to find in a dragon’s cave! But Eustace doesn’t know this, and so he doesn’t suspect that he’s stumbled on a dragon’s lair. All he sees is the treasure, and his mind immediately begins to play on what it could do for him. Eventually he falls asleep on the pile of treasure with his mind still full of greedy and selfish thoughts. But when he wakes up, he discovers to his horror that in his sleep he has been transformed into a dragon himself. As Lewis puts it, ‘Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard, with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.’
This is what sin does to us: it reduces our humanity. Romans 3:23 says ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ John Bowen says, ‘Sin may tempt us to try to become more than we were made to be, but its effect is ultimately to make us less than we were made to be.’
Eustace chose long ago to be a selfish and self-centred person. The dragon he has now become is just an outward expression of the inner state of his heart. This forces him to begin to face the truth about himself. He realizes he doesn’t like the person he has become. Lewis spells this out for us:
He wanted to be among friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realized he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him. He began to see that the others had not really been fiends. He began to wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed. He longed for their voices.
So he goes back to join the others, and succeeds in letting them know that even though outwardly he’s a dragon, inwardly he’s Eustace. They want to receive him back but they can’t decide how they can possibly take him along on the ship in his dragon form. For Eustace, this just shows up the fact that all along he’s chosen to be a misfit. As Lewis puts it,
Poor Eustace realized more and more that since the first day he came on board he had been an unmitigated nuisance and that he was now a greater nuisance still.
There’s nothing Eustace can do to change himself back into human form, and things seen hopeless for him. But then one night he has a mysterious meeting with a lion. We, the readers, know who that lion is – the Great Lion, Aslan himself, the Christ figure in the Narnia stories. Aslan leads Eustace to a well of water. Eustace wants to bathe, but Aslan tells him he must undress first. Eustace remembers that dragons can shed their skin, so he scratches and scratches and eventually the dragon skin comes off. Underneath, however, he finds another dragon skin, and then another, and another. He eventually despairs, and then Aslan says to him, “You will have to let me undress you.” Aslan uses his lion claws, tearing the dragon skin away completely, tearing so deeply that Eustace feels as if it has gone straight through his heart. It hurts him worse than anything he has ever felt, but the next thing he knows Aslan is throwing him into the water, and then he finds to his great joy that he’s been turned into a boy again.
Eustace then goes back to join the others. He knows Aslan’s power has changed him, but he also knows he’s got some things to put right with the others. He meets his cousin Edmund, and he says, “By the way, I’d like to apologise. I’ve been pretty beastly.” He’s now on the way to becoming a much less selfish and unpleasant human being. But the change is not instant. Lewis is far too honest about our Christian experience to pretend this can happen. He says, ‘It would be nice, and fairly true, to say that, “from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.” To be strictly accurate, he beganto be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of these I shall not notice. The cure had begun.’
This story of Eustace has a lot to teach us about transformation. Transformation is what the Christian message is all about. The Greek word is ‘metanoia’, which means change—deep, lasting change. It’s sometimes translated as ‘conversion’; in one place Jesus uses the image of a new birth, which is about as powerful a change as you can imagine. But transformation isn’t a one time only event for us Christians. It’s a process that continues throughout our Christian life.
The story of Eustace tells us what sin is all about. In the Bible, sin is essentially selfishness or self-centredness. It’s rejecting the rule of the one true God and claiming the right to be God for ourselves. It’s a happy coincidence in the English language that the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ in the centre of it. This reminds us that when I put myself at the centre of my life, and see everyone else—even God—as just there for my convenience, then I’m in a state of sin. That’s what Eustace does. He lives a totally self-centred life.
The story of Eustace shows us what sin does to us.I said at the beginning that sin has a literally monstrous effect on us. Sin transformed Eustace into a monster, but the monstrous form was simply a reflection of his monstrous heart. Sin makes us something hideous, something far less than the fully human persons God wants us to be. And sin spoils our relationships, too, isolating us from others. Even Lucy, the youngest Pevensie, who has the kindest heart of anyone in the Narnia series, finds it hard to put up with Eustace. Her brother Edmund, who usually calls a spade a spade, simply calls him a ‘record stinker’!
The story of Eustace shows us that transformation starts by facing the truth about ourselves.The Letter of James, in the New Testament, tells us God’s law is like a mirror that shows us what we are really like. But some people don’t want to face that truth: ‘They look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they are like.’ (James 1:24) But after his dragon experience Eustace can’t do that anymore. He realizes he’s been a thoroughly unpleasant person, he accepts that truth, and he longs more than anything else to change.
The story of Eustace shows us that we can’t change ourselves.Eustace gets to the point where he longs to change. He hates what he’s become, and he wants more than anything else to be just a boy again. That’s a moment we all have to come to. We choose to change direction, to repent of our sins, to learn a new way of life. We read the story of Jesus, we’re inspired by his teaching, and we think, “This is what I want!” So we make some resolutions, plan to make some changes, and off we go.
Crash! It might take twelve hours or twelve days, but sooner or later we come face to face with our human weakness. Sinfulness goes far deeper in us than we thought. Some people say that Christianity is difficult. The truth is far worse than that: Christianity isn’t difficult, it’s impossible! All Eustace can do is make himself into a slightly less wrinkly dragon. He can’t make himself into a boy again.
The story of Eustace shows us that we can only be changed by the power of Christ.Aslan is the only one who can rip the dragon skin off Eustace, and the first tear pierces Eustace all the way to the heart. His problem started with his self-centred heart, you see. Superficial solutions can’t accomplish anything.
Over and over again, Christian people have discovered that only the power of Jesus can help them become different. We come to the point where we cry out desperately: “I’ve tried, I really have, but I just can’t change myself.” So we call out for his help. Often the help is painful to receive. Eustace said it hurt more than anything he’d ever felt in his life. Things happen to us, or we find ourselves asked to do things, that we shrink from because they seem too painful. But, as the Twelve Steps of A.A. say, ‘Half measures availed us nothing.’ If we’re going to be changed, it will have to be with the help of Christ.
Finally, the story of Eustace shows us that transformation is gradual.The mountaintop experience with Aslan leads down to the daily decision to follow him. And this daily decision, too, is made with the help of Christ. Often it feels like two steps forward and one step back—or on some days, one step forward and two steps back! But the Christian disciple is wiser now. She realizes self-confidence is a dead end, so each day she looks to Jesus for guidance and strength to take the next step.
Let’s sum up. Lent is about change, and change is difficult. We’d like to think we can change ourselves, but all our failed attempts only show us how weak we really are. By ourselves, we’re stuck.
But the gospel tells us we don’t have to be stuck. By the power of Aslan, Eustace can be changed from a dragon to a boy, and then he can go on to live like a boy and not a dragon. And by the power of Jesus, I can be changed into a child of God, and then I can go on to learn to live like a child of God. It’s impossible for a human, but with Christ all things are possible. So let’s put ourselves in the hands of Christ and ask him to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.
In the Old Testament there’s a story of the prophet Elijah that seems relevant to me as we start our Lenten journey.
Elijah lived in the time of King Ahab of Israel, who was married to Jezebel, a foreign princess and worshipper of the Sidonian god Baal. Elijah had several confrontations with Ahab and Jezebel. One of his most famous confrontations came at the end of three years of drought, which he had predicted as a judgement on the idolatry of Israel.
At the end of the three year period, Elijah appeared on the scene and challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest on Mount Carmel. They would build an altar and offer a sacrifice, he would build an altar and offer a sacrifice, and then they would each call on their god to send fire to burn up the sacrifice.
Elijah invited the prophets of Baal to go first, since there were so many of them. So they built their altar, killed the sacrificial animal, and then for several hours prayed and danced and sang and cut themselves, all in an effort to get Baal’s attention. But nothing happened.
Eventually it was Elijah’s turn. He built an altar, killed the sacrificial animal, and poured several gallons of water over it to make it difficult for Yahweh. Then he prayed and called on the name of Yahweh, and the fire of heaven fell and burned up the sacrifice. The people all bowed down to Yahweh, and Elijah told them to execute the prophets of Baal, which they did.
This seemed like a tremendous victory, but it got Elijah into big trouble. When Queen Jezebel heard he had killed her prophets, she sent him a message: “By this time tomorrow, you’ll be dead.” Of course Elijah was afraid, and he ran for his life.
Let’s not forget that the confrontation on Mount Carmel had taken place after the three years of drought. During that time Elijah had lived in hiding, for fear that Ahab and Jezebel would arrest him and have him executed. So for three years he’d been on the run. He was probably in a state of emotional exhaustion.
We can imagine how he felt. “I can’t win with this woman. At the end of the day, she’s got all the power. Even when Yahweh shows unmistakably that he’s the true God and Baal isn’t, it doesn’t seem to make any difference. It’s only a matter of time before she tracks me down and kills me.” So, despite the fact that he had just won a great victory, Elijah was overcome with fear and depression.
So he ran away again and headed south, out into the desert, journeying toward Mount Sinai where Moses had met God and received the Ten Commandments. After his first day’s journey he lay down to sleep, and this was his prayer: “It is enough; now, O Yahweh, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19.4) Here’s what happened next:
‘Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of Yahweh came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God’. (1 Kings 19.5-8)
I find this a very telling paragraph. Let me explain why.
When we think about Lenten disciplines, we tend to think about what we do with our souls. We think of things like prayer and Bible reading, meditation, fasting, almsgiving and that sort of stuff. And none of that is wrong.
But it’s possible that what we really need is something more basic. We aren’t disembodied spirits. We’re physical creatures. Our souls depend on our bodies. Years ago many people believed the soul is a spiritual part of us that exists inside us, and the body is a sort of clothing for the soul. But nowadays we know from science that what we call ‘the soul’ depends on the body: specifically, on the brain. Our thoughts and feelings, our morals and character, our habits and virtues and vices—all these things depend on physical things happening in the brain.
And our brains are very dependent on the health of the rest of the body. Alzheimer’s is a physical disease, but it has a huge effect on the personality, because it affects the chemistry of the brain. And it’s not just really serious stuff like that. If we’ve eaten too much, the blood is busy digesting food in the stomach and the brain feels foggy. If we’re tired, we can’t concentrate. And it’s been shown over and over again that going for a walk can sometimes have a miraculous effect on the clarity of our thinking!
God was planning on meeting with Elijah, but he knew there was something Elijah needed first: a good night’s sleep, and something to eat. Maybe that tells us something about our needs too. Maybe the first question we should ask ourselves in Lent is, “How are we doing in looking after the bodies God has given us?”
Are we getting enough sleep? Electric light has played havoc with people’s sleep patterns. We stare at screens all evening, and the blue light inhibits the natural sleep inducers in our bodies. Also, when we’re watching TV or playing on the computer we tend to snack, and this can affect our sleep. Someone calculated that we’re getting on average an hour and a half less sleep a night than our grandparents got.
What about exercise? Years ago people walked more and worked with their hands more, and even their relaxations tended to involve more physical activity. Nowadays most of us spend a huge percentage of our day sitting down and doing things with our brains. God didn’t design us for this huge imbalance between physical and mental activity. Maybe a daily walk or some other kind of exercise might be a huge step toward spiritual health for us.
And of course we need to think about diet too. In medieval times in Europe only the rich ate meat regularly; the poor couldn’t afford it. Many people around the world live on much less food than we take for granted. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not my intention to point fingers. I spent about twenty-five years seriously overweight, and I think a forty-day journey in the desert from Israel to Mount Sinai might well have killed me!
So here’s where God started with Elijah: have a good sleep, have a good meal, go for a long walk. And then, when that’s all been taken care of, Elijah came to the mountain. He spent the night in a cave, and the next day God spoke to him and asked him why he was there. He said, “I’ve worked hard for you, even though your people have abandoned your covenant, torn down your altars and killed your prophets. I’m the only one left, and they’re after me, too.”
God told him to go out onto the mountain, because he was about to pass by. Then there was an amazing display of pyrotechnics. Here’s how the Bible describes it:
‘Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before Yahweh, but Yahweh was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but Yahweh was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but Yahweh was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”’ (1 Kings 19.11b-13)
The Hebrew phrase for ‘a sound of sheer silence’ is difficult to translate into English. The King James Version says, ‘a still, small voice’. NIV says ‘a gentle whisper’, and REB has ‘a faint murmuring sound.’ But we get the point. Israelites were used to stories of God’s mighty acts in storms and earthquakes, but that’s not how God came to Elijah. God was in the calm afterthe storm, the ‘sound of sheer silence.’ And Elijah had no doubt about it; it says he ‘wrapped his face in his mantle,’ because he knew it was a dangerous thing for a human to look at God.
Today we’re surrounded by the earthquake, wind, and fire. Noise is all around us. The city never sleeps. Cars drive all night long, the police helicopter never sleeps, and if we can’t sleep, the Internet is there to welcome us back. Very few people go on long car drives without listening to the radio or the music system. In that respect, of course, we’re very different from our ancestors, who travelled across this land on horseback for weeks at a time in silence.
Silence is a skill we have to learn. Our Christian ancestors knew that sitting in silence before God is a very important part of prayer. Those who love each other don’t always need to be talking to each other. Sometimes they just sit together, knowing each other so well that they know what the other person is thinking and feeling.
It’s like that with God, too. Yes, we’re invited to speak to God, but we’re also invited to be silent before him. Psalm 62.5 says ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.’ Elijah heard God speaking to him out of the silence. Sometimes that’s the way with us, too. And even if it isn’t, there’s immense peace to be found in learning to spend significant amounts of time in silence and stillness before God.
Let’s sum up where we’ve come so far. I’m reflecting on how this story fits into Jesus’ great commandments to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Get a good night’s sleep, get your eating sorted out, go for a walk as often as you can—those are all ways of loving ourselves appropriately. Learning to be silent before God, enjoying his presence, and listening to him—that’s about loving God with all our heart. If we really love someone, we don’t just want to talk to them. We want to listen carefully, without interrupting, so we can pick up everything they’re saying to us.
But of course the other command is to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. That comes at the end of this story of Elijah. He complains to God again that he’s the only believer left, but God corrects him. “Actually,” he says, “there are at least seven thousand others in Israel who’ve never worshipped Baal.” I suspect Yahweh is gently nudging Elijah out of his pity-party! And then he gives him a job to do, to go back to speaking to others on his behalf, and he sends him on his way home. And Elijah obeys. Apparently his encounter with God in the desert and on the mountain has given him what he needs to carry on.
Some of the words God told Elijah to speak were hard words, and the people in power weren’t going to like them. Sometimes God calls us to speak hard words, too. To be loving doesn’t always mean being nice. Sometimes the loving thing to do is to speak the truth to someone. At other times, of course, the loving thing is to listen to what the other person is saying. Very few people these days have the experience of being reallylistened to. I don’t know whether or not Elijah was a good listener, but I’m absolutely sure it’s important.
This last command calls us out of Lenten self-absorption. Sometimes Lent can be a selfish time. The church invites us to examine ourselves and take on new disciplines and spiritual practices, but sometimes those practices can be all about what we might call a ‘bipartite spirituality’: ‘me and God’, forgetting about the neighbour. But Jesus didn’t just call us to ‘me and God’; he called us to ‘God, neighbour, self’. This ‘tripartite spirituality’ is what Christianity is all about, and what Lent is all about.
So let’s sum up.
Our bodies are a gift from God and they have a huge impact on our spiritual health too. Proper sleep, sensible eating, good exercise—this is all common sense, except it’s becoming less common. What’s one practice we could take on this Lent to take better care of our bodies?
Listening to God in silence can be a powerful experience. Most of us pray from time to time, and some of us pray every day. But do we do all the talking? Can we start to add silence to our regular prayers? Can we start with maybe one ten minute period a week, and then build on from there?
And finally, our neighbours are all around us. They aren’t a distraction from our spiritual lives. Many of us are already involved in serving. But perhaps some of us need to give more attention to this. Is there a simple opportunity sitting in front of us, an opportunity to serve a neighbour in a meaningful way? How can we take advantage of it?
Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself. Elijah’s story shows us the way. As we follow, let’s commit ourselves to a good and holy Lent.
“Let all pray with fervour to God, and let them abandon their wicked ways and the injustice they practice.” (Jonah 3.8b Revised English Bible)
I note that most other translations (including the REB’s ancestor the New English Bible) have ‘violence’ rather than ‘injustice’, although I would argue that injustice is a form of violence.
These are the words of the King of Nineveh. In the story of Jonah, after Jonah has been swallowed by the fish and given three days to think over his situation, he repents of his disobedience and goes to Nineveh to warn them of the oncoming judgement. No doubt he hopes they won’t repent—after all, they are Israel’s enemies and he’d love to see God wipe them out! But to his surprise they listen to what he has to say, and they repent and turn to God. I love the way the author of Jonah spells out what repentance means: praying with fervour to God, abandoning our wicked ways and our injustice/violence.
Our Canadian Book of Alternative Services liturgy regularly asks us to tell God ‘we humbly repent’. The danger of this is that we can fall into the trap of thinking that just by saying the words ‘we repent’, we have in fact repented. But of course, if we haven’t actually done anything about it, we haven’t really repented. Feeling sorry is not the issue. Changing the way we act is the issue.
So it might be a good start for us to ask ‘What evil ways do I need to abandon this Lent? What acts of violence/injustice?’ Remember that ‘evil ways’ can include good things we’ve neglected to do, as well as bad things we’ve done. Note also that acts of injustice and violence are often social sins we’re implicated in by our participation in the political/economic machine, so unravelling them can be a challenge. Also, since abandoning an evil act generally means replacing it with a good practice, what are the good practices I need to take up to replace the old ways?
Merciful God, grant to each of us this Lent a true repentance, that we may abandon wickedness, violence and injustice, and follow with you the way of compassion, justice, and love. Amen.
‘That is why we are bound to pay all the more heed to what we have been told, for fear of drifting from our course.’ (Hebrews 2.1 REB)
I really like the REB translation ‘drifting from our course’. I suppose that in the days of sail, when holding to a course involved careful trimming of sails and sometimes steering as close to the wind as possible, ‘drifting from the course’ was an ever-present reality. It certainly is in my Christian life! Jesus has given me the course heading pretty clearly—love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself, in response to God’s love for you in Christ—but I seem to be oh so talented at drifting off course into fascinatingly esoteric religious practices and discussions, not to mention the glittering distractions of a world drunk on materialism.
Lord Jesus, as Lent begins, help us not to drift off course. Help us pay all the more heed to what we have been told—to the teaching you gave us—so that we may stay on the right path. And when we are distracted, please alert us to the fact, and show us the way back. Amen.