Sunday, 23 March 2014
Sermon 16th March 2014 Psalm 121 – A Psalm for Life’s Journey Anne Mountains can be places where literally being on ‘top of the world’ can be liberating and awe inspiring; do you remember from the Sound of Music, those opening aerial shots where Julie Andrews as Sister Maria runs and twirls freely on the Austrian hilltop? Maria’s joy and happiness seemed to radiate from the mountain top and the views of the Austrian lake district were beautiful and idyllic. Maybe the Psalmist, the person who wrote and spoke the words of Psalm 121, was looking expectantly at the mountains surrounding Jerusalem in Judaea. Maybe he was lifting his eyes hopefully towards the hills and pondering wistfully on the goal of his pilgrimage journey; maybe they reminded him of his destination - the Temple in Jerusalem standing on top of Mount Zion. But mountains can also be places of danger. Back in August 2006, we walked the Coast-to-Coast long distance path from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay on the East Coast. It was a journey with plenty of hills! It rains in the Lake District and as we set out on the last Lake District section, the weather changed for the worst. As we climbed higher and higher up the mountain, the temperature fell dramatically. And then suddenly and without warning, swirling dark grey clouds rolled in and shrouded us in a freezing cold hailstorm. With no shelter, all we could do was crouch down beside the remains of a dry stone wall to avoid the stinging hailstones lashing our faces. With no visibility, no view and no landmarks to pinpoint our location and proximity to the edge, being on top of a mountain is a precarious place to be; all we could do was wait until the mist cleared. Those lovely, inviting hills had become a place of danger and threat; a place where we were exposed and vulnerable. Maybe the Psalmist looked up at those Judean Hills with fear and trepidation, knowing that the journey would not be easy. Bandits and wild animals hide in hills, heatstroke and exhaustion can overtake you. Hills can be places of refuge and beauty, but also places of menace. Either way, help comes from only one source - “Where does my help come from?” the Psalmist asks, “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” he responds. The Psalmist’s pilgrim journey towards Jerusalem included physical ups and downs as he traversed the hills and the valleys, but maybe he would have also experienced emotional and spiritual ups and downs too. One moment ‘on top of the world’ and the next exposed, doubtful and vulnerable. As we journey through Lent, as we pilgrim towards Easter Sunday, we can reflect on our ups and downs, joys and sadness, hope and despair. Some of us may feel closest to God when we are faced with hard times. We call out in desperation to Him when all else fails and when we are at our most needy. When we realise our limits, we seek Him more than ever. But then when things start to resolve themselves, we don’t seem to call on Him as much and often we forget He’s even there. In contrast, some of us may feel closest to God in the midst of the good times. When everything’s going well, we can confidently answer the question “Where does my help come from?” with a speedy response “My help comes from the Lord.” But when we are faced with life’s challenges and despair, such as economic hardship, physical illness and loss of a loved one, we’re knocked back and discouraged and wonder why God has let something so awful happen. And we pray, and it seems like God is not answering … maybe he’s not listening … and our response to the question “Where does my help come from?” is followed by a long pause, and a reticent reply ….”my help … comes from … the Lord”. How can we be confident of God’s presence in times of doubt or challenge? The Psalmist reminds us of how great our God is. Help comes from the Creator God, the Maker of heaven and earth, nothing is beyond His reach and control. Not even the hills or the mountains. And in the words of what seems like a blessing, a voice in the Psalm reminds us of who God is and what he does. He is the majestic helper, the faithful keeper. When the way is uncertain and precarious He protects us. He will not let our feet slip, He will not let your feet slip. He is always vigilant, always watching over us. His watchful eye is constant, never ceasing, never sleeping. And even though we may forget He’s there, He’s never distracted, never day dreaming, never inattentive towards us. He watches over us, not from a distant place, but in close proximity at our right hand. He protects us from all the perils of the day and night. He does not abandon us even when times are good or when times are dark. He watches over our lives. This does not mean though that we will always be ‘on top of the world’ or that we will not suffer. We only have to listen to stories about Christians being persecuted in Syria or North Korea to know that’s not the case. And we, like everyone else, face redundancies, economic hardship, injustices, sickness and bereavement. But God is not only the Creator and Maker of heaven and earth, he is our redeemer and Saviour. His loving care for us goes far beyond what we or the Psalmist might be able to imagine. He withholds nothing from us, not even His Son. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And there we have it – eternal life – what ever this world holds we are promised life with him – a life beyond our present anxieties and sufferings, beyond this life’s ups and downs. A life that’s not limited by time; His care is eternal; he is committed to being with us … always. And so, you can raise your eyes to the mountains and whatever they might hold for you, confident that your help comes from the Lord because He: “will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore” (verse 8). Amen Additional Information Psalms 120-134 are labelled as “A Song of Ascents”. Although we cannot be sure, some scholars think these were the songs sung by the Israelites as they made pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the 3 major feasts each year. As they sung the Psalms travelling on the roads leading up to Jerusalem, they would also be preparing themselves to bring their sacrifices before God in the Temple.
Saturday, 22 March 2014
Genesis 2: 15 – 17 & 3: 1 – 7 Romans 5 : 12 – 19 Matthew 4 : 1 – 11
This is the 1st Sunday in Lent and it’s a good time to ask three basic questions. What is Lent? How should we observe it? And how does it help our understanding of the Christian Gospel?
1. What is Lent? The word itself means ‘Springtime’ and we can apply it to our Christian lives in two ways: First, a ‘spring-clean’. Traditionally it’s the time of year when the days become longer, the sun shines more brightly into all the corners, and hopefully we feel more active. That’s the theory anyway! And so we notice that our homes could do with a thorough clean and out comes the vacuum cleaner, the dusters, and all the range of modern cleaning aids. It doesn’t take much imagination to transfer this to our Christian lives. We take time to examine the dark corners, the things not done which ought to have been done, and the things done which ought not to have been done, and begin to cleanse our lives and put them in order.
The other side of ‘Springtime’ is, naturally, that we delight to see nature unfolding its glorious blossoms and coming into full flower. It’s the same with our Christian lives. If we address our failings and shortcomings, and indeed our wilful sin, then our spiritual lives will burst into glorious bloom and we will know that wonderful sense of renewal of spiritual life and energy, and we will know the joy and peace that comes from a restored relationship with God.
Traditionally Lent lasts for 40 days leading up to Easter. This is in order that our spiritual lives and practices have been thoroughly serviced and MOT-ed in time to celebrate Easter with all our spiritual engines running well and on full power.
If it seems strange that Lent begins on a Wednesday and ends on Easter Saturday, that’s because our time of self-examination may well include abstinence - including fasting – and outward symbols of repentance. But Sundays are excluded from these practices, because Sunday is always a Feast Day, celebrating the Lord’s resurrection. So, if you count the days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Saturday and leave out the Sundays, the answer will be forty!
If we ask – why forty? The best answer is that Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness as he prepared for his earthly ministry (as we have just read in the Gospel), and that seems an excellent example to follow.
2. How should we observe Lent? There is the outward symbolism and the inner process. Hopefully, the two will integrate and both complement and reinforce each other.
First, the outward symbolism. Traditionally, the pattern has been to try and imitate the model of Jesus and make it a time of fasting. What that means in practice may differ from what was appropriate to the medieval monks, for example, to a suitable practice in our very different lives today. Fasting was a central feature (which took various forms) but that was not just an end in itself, but was accompanied by much prayer. There are people now who find that going without food – or minimum food – for periods of time, increases their concentration and focus. Excellent! Fasting is very much an orthodox Christian practice. Others will find that it simply gives them a migraine, while for others with certain medical conditions, it could seriously damage their health. Everyone must work out what most helps their spiritual concentration and prayer. Many now enforce a bit of discipline on their lives by deciding to abstain from – say - alcohol, meat, chocolate, or their favourite food, whatever that may be.
As well as giving up something we value, it will be helpful (as Anne pointed out in the last Liquid communion service) positively to take on something. In particular, join one of our special Lent courses, carve out more time for prayer, Bible reading with suitable notes and Holy Communion.
But all these should only be outward and visible signs of an inward reality. Are we really putting our spiritual lives in order? Are we taking positive steps to reconcile broken relationships? To put an end to whatever practices that grieve God’s loving heart? To look again at what it means to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves? Without this, all the outward practice will be a sham. In the Gospels, the Pharisees were good at an outward show of practice with no real depth, and Jesus called them ‘Hypocrites’ – which means play-actors. It’s just theatre.
We each need to consider our personal response, in order that our lives will blossom spiritually so that we can celebrate Easter.
3. How does Lent help our understanding of the Christian Gospel?
In our Gospel reading, we see Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. He has just been baptized by John the Baptist, and as the Holy Spirit descends on him and fills his life with power, his public ministry is launched. He has been commissioned by God to offer the world a new way of living, which will restore our relationship with God and bring about true freedom, love, justice and peace.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul tells us in theological picture language that Jesus is the new Adam, who has come to reverse the effects of our fallen nature.
In our first reading from Genesis chapter 3, we read about the root cause of our present human condition. We are meant to understand that this story of the serpent and the tree of the knowledge and evil, is not so much intended to describe a single event, but to offer a deep insight into the problem that besets us all. We do not trust God sufficiently to obey his laws. In essence, we think we know better what will bring us happiness, success and satisfaction. And so we choose to go our own way in life – and often we then blame God when things go wrong. At some funerals I preside at, the family want to end the service with Frank Sinatra’s song ‘I did it my way’. And I think to myself ‘that is the perfect definition of sin’! I don’t want or intend to live my life under God’s loving guidance and direction. I intend to live it my way.
Jesus goes out into the wilderness to pray through the human problem, God’s solution, and how he is to implement it.
There are various possibilities. Will the world become a better place, and we become better people, if he makes it possible for the whole world to be fed? Well, that would certainly help, but in fact there is enough food in the world to feed everyone, but because of our human condition, we will never share it fairly.
Will Jesus make everyone believe he is God’s full and final messenger and follow him faithfully by throwing himself off the top of the temple – performing a great miracle? No, the sad truth is that Jesus will perform miracle after miracle, and the response of all the religious leaders is simply to ask for yet more and more signs – better evidence – more convincing proof. They have no wish to be convinced.
Will Jesus bring peace to the world through military conflict and magnificent victory establishing a kingdom of love and peace? Sadly, one military victory simply seems to provoke a counter response – another conflict - and world still does not find itself able to live in harmony and peace.
There is an underlying problem to all this. These strategies would address the symptoms not the disease. And the disease, as Jesus sees very clearly, lies in the fallen human heart and will. We all want to do it ‘our way’.
Jesus spells it out to his disciples in Matthew 16: 24 - 16: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me, will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gain the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”
To get in step with Jesus this Lent means repentance, which means turning your life around, finding the right priorities – if necessary, turning your values upside down. Not my will, Lord, but yours be done.
This led Jesus down to the depths of the cross, where he took upon himself the tragedy of our fallen lives and wilful disobedience, and in his resurrection, brought us the hope of a new life, true freedom and a glorious future.
If we turn our lives to Christ in trust and obedience this Lent, then we shall indeed rejoice this coming Easter in the new life we find, with its true freedom, unlimited, unconditional love, and an eternal future. Whatever practices you adopt this Lent to renew your faith in Christ, may this Spring be for you the way to a glorious new resurrection life.
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NB. No discussion questions this week as we take part in the Lent courses which have their own questions. Please join these.
“Repentance is never the outcome of despair, but rather an act of profound hope. As we make confession of our sins this Lent, we do so not as a grovelling act of self-hatred, but as a response to God’s mercy. So we come home to reality, to the God ‘to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden’. God does not lead us to repentance to condemn us but to set us free from all the destructive and acquisitive instincts that crowd in on our lives and erode our faith and humanity. It is an act of trust – our part in the renewal of all creation.” Angela Tilby, Thought for the day. Radio 4. 5th March.
Saturday, 1 March 2014
On the Sunday before Lent begins, the readings usually remind us of the Transfiguration. This happened when Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain by themselves. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light. The disciples saw Jesus talking to Moses and Elijah, two heroes from the Old Testament who were each famous for mountain top experiences.
We read a little earlier how God summoned Moses up onto the mountain to meet him. Again and again we read about the holiness of God, and the care that must be taken so that the people are not exposed to God’s holiness and killed. The precautions that God spells out might remind us of workers entering the damaged reactor at Chernobyl. He is truly immortal, invisible, hidden in inaccessible light. Moses waits for six days, looking at the cloud of glory that has descended on the mountain, before God calls to him again and he goes up, to spend 40 days with God.
Then we skip forward perhaps 1500 years to an old man – Peter, who is pleading with us to live a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. We have received all that we need to do this because of God’s goodness, but we are nevertheless to make every effort to live well. This is not theory, Peter says. He himself has seen the glory of God, when he accompanied Jesus onto the mountain, and heard the voice from on high saying “This is my beloved Son, with him I am pleased.”
In each case, the holiness and mystery of God is made clear. So how can we ever dream that might encounter him and grow in him? On each occasion a man meets God, on behalf of others. Moses has brought the elders of Israel as high up the mountain as they can dare to come. Now he must go on alone. During the 40 days he will receive the two tablets of the law engraved on stone, and ultimately his face will start to shine as he is changed from glory into glory. Because Moses can meet God, ultimately all the people of Israel can safely encounter God, albeit though an elaborate system of ritual and sacrifice, that is laid out for us in Exodus and Leviticus.
And Jesus is revealed to be the new Moses. He is the Father’s pure radiance, the divine presence here on earth. The context is again one of hardship and difficulty. Jesus has just been speaking of the opposition he has been encountering from the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and has just astounded his disciples by saying that he will be betrayed into the hands of his enemies, killed and that he will rise again on the third day. Here on the mountain top he is speaking to Moses and Elijah, both of whom suffered persecution. Luke, in his version, mentions that Jesus is talking about his own exodus, his departure from this life.
And the three disciples are part of it. They do not understand it all. They are far from perfect. But Peter’s report is that his life was changed as he found himself in the presence of the divine. He has a reason to get up each morning. He has a strong power pushing him to want to have the same character as Jesus.
And we learn powerful lessons as we seek to be a growing community of faith that is open for all.
We need to be a welcoming people. Jesus could have gone up on the mountain alone. But he chose to share the experience with his disciples, who in turn have shared it with us. It is remarkably hard to be a Christian on your own; you are not designed for it. Jesus gathered his disciples into a group, and it seems plain to me from scripture that he is still doing this. I talked to someone recently about their bad foot. But how had they managed to walk all the way around Virginia Water? “Oh that was easy. We were in a group and as we chatted the walk just happened.” For whatever reason, it is not automatic for everyone just to easily follow Jesus; we need to be a welcoming, encouraging, facilitating, going the second mile, cake making, group attending people, who help others to join us as we go up the mountain together.
We need to be people who are followers of Jesus. Peter, James and John might have said “Thanks for the invitation, but it is not convenient right now.” Or perhaps “but I am not worthy to join you on the mountain; let’s wait till I am in the right frame of mind”. But Jesus called them, and they went. Every one of us who has been baptised is by definition a follower of Jesus. We may feel ourselves to be fallible people who are always getting things wrong; that is, however, the necessary qualification to be a follower of Jesus. This is where joining one of the two courses on offer this Lent may be just the best thing that you can do. They each have a different approach but they will enable you to take real steps forward in getting to know Jesus. They will help those who wish to be baptised or confirmed, and those who want to revisit their baptismal promises and see how to live them out in everyday life. As part of our Easter worship we are planning a Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows.
We need to be people who are learning to pray. It is tempting to think that once we have sorted various things out in our lives and got ourselves on an even keel, once the problems are dealt with and we are feeling better, then we will be clear to worship and pray to God as he is worth it. The truth is, however, that Jesus took his disciples up onto the mountain while in the midst of considerable turmoil, and with more waiting for him afterwards. Moses would come down from his 40 days to face the crisis of the golden calf. We are learning to glory in God’s glory, but also in the tribulations that we encounter day by day. We learn to pray on our own and in groups and in the whole congregation here. We praise God in our triumphs and in our disasters, and we learn to pray though them all.
We are a people who communicate God’s love to all around us. Peter saw in Jesus a direct line back to the Old Testament prophets who made God’s love known, and he himself continued that line in his preaching and his writing. If he had lived today, would Peter have Facebooked, tweeted, blogged, YouTubed and also written articles for The Magazine? I suspect that he would have.
Today we are launching our Mission Action Plan. It is the start of a process that will continue, of choosing actions that bring us closer to God, and make it easier for others to join us in following Jesus. I trust that you will be blessed as you join us in going up the mountain with Jesus this Lent.