Sermon For The First Sunday of Lent
17th Feb 2013
The First Sunday of Lent Year C (2013)
Jesus, full of the holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by The Holy Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. Luke 41, 2.
At the beginning of the Lenten season the Church helps us to we see the Christian Faith from a more searching and interrogating point of view. This is suggested as we are sent into the wilderness with Christ. Of course, here in London, we are thousands of miles away from the kind of sandy, rocky desert which Jesus inhabited. We should remember too, that in First Century Palestine, the desert was never very far away from the town. Even today it is amazing how soon on leaving the city of Jerusalem you meet the desert only as it were a few miles down the road. But for Jesus then and for us now, the idea of the desert place still worked on the human mind. It was seen as a place and an experience in which one might find clarity of thought and vision untrammelled by the distractions of town life, but equally it was a place of unremitting intensity and harshness. It was for all these reasons that in the life of the early Church, the so-called desert mothers and fathers made their homes in caves and practised rigorous lives of prayer and self.-denial. We may say, then, that the idea of the wilderness or desert is the one which immediately suggests severe physical and spiritual challenge. For Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, this challenge was inscribed in the people’s memory in the ancient search for The Promised Land, and of Moses leading the people through great travail to the place of final sanctuary. But before this, they understood that Moses entered Mount Sinai for forty days and nights before receiving the tablets of the Law. Jesus’ habitation of the wilderness over this forty day period, the period of Lent, is set alongside the Giving of the Law and begs the question of what kind of new law or provision does New Testament Scripture envisage?
The emphatic message of the Gospels is the one which has not denied the worth and truth of the Old Testament tradition. But it is plain on one basic point. This is that all Jewish scripture and its promise now receives its fulfilment in the One man, Jesus Christ, and in the manner of his whole being: his teaching, his actions, his example and above all in the God-givenness of his destiny. We come to know that this destiny will end in his freely going to his own death. So now, by these means, we come to understand Jesus temptations in the wilderness over a forty day period as a movement of divine love. Jesus’ ministry and destiny are not fixed but have to be worked out, and worked out very painfully. They must involve a desert experience as an extreme form of personal and spiritual testing. If Jesus is to be Christ the Saviour this testing must take him to the very limits of his own estimation of things and beyond them. There must be an engagement with the evil that may always assert itself on other side of the good. The acknowledgement, is made that even in the desert, there exists the light and the shadow component in the mind of Man. There is the need to understand these things and, acknowledging the burden that human freedom of choice often sets upon us, of the importance of coming to know the good and of deciding in its favour. In his respect we may see the temptations in the wilderness as establishing the right kind of moral frequency through which Christ overcomes the ancient divisions the threaten to divide and separate us.
The Temptation in the Wilderness also assumes the existence of the Devil. The Devil is no longer in the forefront of the Christian mind. It’s because people were wedded to the notion of the crudeness with which they were offered images of the devil, many of them stretching from the high medieval period in which punishment by devils were a commonly illustrated theme. The fear of hell-fire its companion piece. But the expunging of the idea of the Devil or of the existence of evil from consciousness leaves a vacant gap into which Christ’s ministry and work as defeating the devil is left unheeded. A full consciousness of the power of evil and of evil influence is essential for a balanced view of our world, where the simple analogy of light and its casting shadow allows us to see that as humans we want to see ourselves as people who wish good to prevail, but act very often with mixed motives. It is certain for Jesus that in order to enter the human condition as it is found, he must understand the nature of human frailty, and in the temptations by Satan, the recourse to self-aggrandisement, spiritual pride and self-will. Jesus has rejected these things in the wilderness but he will be accused of these things by the angry mob, under whose despising he will be condemned to die.
The Church has always wanted Christians to instruct themselves in the way of self-acknowledge. In doing this it observes the essentially divided nature of the human condition. But at the same time open up the possibility latent in the mercy and forgiveness of God through the honest recognition of our condition: The Prayer Book Confession expresses it well : “We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have not done those things which we ought to have done and there is no health in us. But thou O God, have mercy upon us…” Jesus is in the wilderness to tell it like it is. To remind us that there is much to understand about the human condition in all its complexity and contradictoriness, but also much to understand and to forgive, both in ourselves and in those around us. The Christian grounding is the one which has studied these things and internalised them. That lives according to what has been called ‘the ground of our being’ and which can see life as containing both light and shadow.
Finally, The Wilderness Experience is the one which is seen as the preparation for Christ’s ministry. It is assumed that the world of men and women is that strange mixture of light and shadow. If the Christian faith is to provide that way of looking at the world which offers humankind ‘a way back’ to our created splendour, then Jesus Christ as the bringer of new healing must be the one who has encountered all the worst that the world can throw at him, and finally to have prevailed. In all this, we are being given a powerful reminder his morning that in Jesus we have a Saviour who has gone ahead of us to restore us into the image and likeness of God himself. We too, must follow where he has gone.
The words from ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’ John Henry Newman.
O wisest love! that flesh and blood,
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
Should strive and should prevail.
Sermon for Ash Wednesday
13th Feb 2013
A S H W E D N E S D A Y
The appeal that we make in Christ’s name is : Be reconciled to God. 1 Corinthians 5.21.
Ash Wednesday comes to us as the offering of an invitation that we find difficult to accept. It is the invitation to enter a wilderness and to meet Christ there. This is the desert which is founded on nothing, an empty place. It is the place which invites the emptying of self. And it is in the emptying of self that we may discover in Jesus a way back to God, and our reconcilation with Him. And so the desert becomes the place of utmost Christian instruction. It invites the offering of ourselves ‘…to advance in the hope which God has set before us’. In a drawing by William Blake a little man looks up to the moon, connected to earth by a ladder and cries “I want! I want!” Lent asks us this question: Is my life based on the satisfaction of a myriad of desires, and if so, how is it that such satisfactions have not satisfied? The desert is the place we go to find out why this is so. A place of encounter with God and of reconciliation with Him. Lent begins here…
What might we be like if our own wanting were to issue out of the the mind of God? Christ goes into the desert to decide for God and to reject those things which are not of God. The act of deciding-for-God is vital. We find it written into one of most popular English books ever written: ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. The overcoming by Jesus of temptation in the wilderness has set Lent upon its centuries old course. It sets us on our way, too. It does this not by the imposition of a whole series of petty restrictions, even though certain restrictions on our wanting may prove beneficial. It does it in Paul’s appeal that above all things, we should ‘be reconciled to God’.The imposition which we receive for Lent is the imposition of ashes. The ashes are a simple expression of the basic nature of our mortality, of the finiteness of our existence. We are to be reminded that ‘we are dust, and unto dust we shall return’. Notice this word ‘imposition’, an unsettling word. As the ashes are imposed upon us there is a call to act. In particular, to act quite apart from what may feed the body but in fact starve the soul. The Ash Wednesday message cuts to the heart of what we are and calls us forward to what God has made us to be. This is what St Paul called ‘the upward call of God in Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3.14). He calls us out of ourselves and the calling is divine, or ‘upward’. This is the call to live our lives in a way fashioned not by chance or of determination, but by God.
Too much of modern urban life involves an exhausting and over-stimulation of the human senses. The hectic tide of getting and spending, the billions of daily mobile ‘phone calls which introduce and reintroduce dizzying levels of talk and information stress create a cacophony. In the concrete jungle existence can pull against contemplation. There is less waiting patiently. We have not learnt to be still, and so are in some separation from where our life’s true source actually lies. And so we need to act for the sake of our soul’s survival. I met last night with a group of businessmen who expressed as a matter of course their sense of living without a sense of source or centre. One of the many paradoxes of Christian Faith is that the reconciliation we seek is the one which emerges out of the desert, the place of longing, the place where God is heard to speak, the centre of our being and our life’s true heart. This is a holy place, which issues out of the recognition of our mortality and its limits with the turning to Christ in faith. Come with the Church this Lent, and let us make another beginning…Let us go to that place where he has gone before and now bids us come, too…
Ash Wednesday proffers an invitation that we receive with reluctance. The invitation to come away to a place of deeper knowing through which, through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, we may advance in the hope which he has set before us. And it is never too late to make a beginning and to start as we mean to go on, with a reminder of our mortality and to come to Jesus, the source of all life and meaning. The one who emptied himself of all but love… Henri Nouwen.
Sermon for the Sunday Next Before Lent
10th Feb 2013
Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent Year C
“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white”. Luke 9. 29
The Transfiguration of Christ on the mountain is not for the Gospel writer Luke a theatrical effect, but a reality which introduces notes of awe and of wonder and draws us into itself. For here we are ‘falling into the hands of the living God’. The Transfiguration is a meeting with the Jesus who has become Christ. It happens right before our eyes, and to see such things is to experience God’s glory. The glory is enveloped in brightness, and yet reveals a terrible secret - of the Christ who is the fulfiller all things, even unto death and resurrection. The secret is disclosed in dazzling white and also within thick shadow and dark cloud. Even though the Feast of the Transfiguration takes place in August, this Gospel reading is purposefully set before us as a key text for the coming of the penitential season of Lent. In this context, the mountain of Transfiguration is the place of amazing appearances, and yet also of stark realities; of terrible truth. It points to the Cross even as it manifests the glory of God. As we sing the well-known hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be here’, there is already a strong sense of foreboding:
Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
This terrible truth-telling in the Transfiguration shows us that there is always the danger of not seeing the other side of things; of the essential gravity of our existence and the seriousness of human suffering, of life as a struggle and of the need for forgiveness and the experience of much pain and adversity. This is the Cross of Jesus and it is our Cross, too. Jesus takes this Cross upon himself and it is the Cross of Jesus which is the glory that God reveals in the mountain-top. This is a strange and difficult kind of glory. It is the one which brings us into contact with the living God. Its message comes as a double-edged sword, the one which the Letter to the Hebrews describes as
…piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart…” Hebrews 4.12
No wonder then, that this reading is set for the Sunday before Lent. There is no easy consolation offered here. Instead comes the invitation to find our truest humanity in Christ and to find it through ‘the changes and chances of this fleeting world and of its brokenness’. This is to begin to be honest with ourselves and toward God. To recognise life’s essential gravity. To begin to find in God that active love and the mercy we need if life is to be transformative. For we cannot stay on the mountain. It is a place of revelation and a necessary point of departure.
In The Louvre, the French National Art Gallery in Paris, visitors invariably head towards one great painting, The Mona Lisa. She gazes impassively through bullet proof glass and is constantly surrounded by her own paparazzi – with cameras and continuous flashes of blinding white light. She has become like the namesake Madonna, a superstar. It is difficult to get near her. But with all the adulation, one wonders what is going on? What is it that is happening when thousands of tourists take photos constantly? There seems to be a manic rush to record it all, and while the photographer is snapping away to ignore the resonance of what is being photographed and its real presence. The photographer is very unstill. There is the attempt to put an atmosphere or an object in the pocket. To capture it. To possess it. To take it away. The Transfiguration offers us the opposite of the blinding camera flash and the image you can put into your pocket. The appearance of Jesus in white light on the mountain-top is God’s revelation to his people, you and me, of his merciful love. In all we have to do or to suffer, God’s presence lies before us as and with it the promise of his holiness to surround us and to inhabit our inmost being. His face shines to show us the light of the revelation of the fullness of God…What is real is not looked at from exterior vision but from within the truth of what has appeared…
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
G M Hopkins
But how are we to bear true witness, especially as we approach the beginning of Lent? The Church offers us as individuals a way forward in the practice of Sacramental Confession. To tell it like it is. Though it has been derided and caricatured and is less practised by many, its effectiveness is very real. The costliness of our being more honest about what we are and what we do wrong is often too humiliating to bear. But this is a necessary humbling, a Cross, which provides us with an effective remedy. It provides a pathway to the restoration of the soul, often so damaged and maimed by our own essential pride. It is an attempt at an honesty from which new life may emerge. And it is more than matched by the matchless mercy of God. We trivialise this aspect of our lives at great cost to the integrity of the Christian Faith. The Transfiguration opens up on honesty to reality. It is what St Paul called
The light of the fullness of the revelation of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ”. 2 Corinthians 4.6.
It is a revelation of what lies most true for human nature. It provides the marriage between what the Old Prayer Book in its General Thanksgiving called ‘The means of Grace and the hope of glory’.
So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists
As fresh and pure as water from a well,
Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed
Till earth and light and water entering there
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere? Edwin Muir (1887-1959)
Sermon for Candlemass
3rd Feb 2013
The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemass) 2013.
My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations to see.
Today’s great Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple extends and enriches the vision of the prophet Malachi that ‘The Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple’. In his prophecy lis the meeting of past and present realities; a meeting between Mary, Joseph and Jesus and old Simeon and between the Jesus who is presented to us this morning. In it, we are given a picture of the God who is close to us and who beckons us into his presence.
In London’s Cavendish Square, opposite John Lewis’ store, lies a great sculpture of the Virgin and Child covering the entrance to a narrow and winding street called Dean’s Mews. It is there to tell the visitor of what lies at the end of the street, a small Roman Catholic Women’s community, The Society of the Holy Child. The sculptor, Jacob Epstein, has Mary, standing behind her infant, with her hands open towards us in a gesture of generous giving and openness. The child at Mary’s feet has his arms open to greet us, waiting to hold us and embrace us. The image carries for us a meaning far beyond that of just any mother and child. It draws us toward it like a magnet because it speaks to us in the way it communicates the strong purposes of God in and beyond the surface meaning of stance and gesture. It has an everlasting quality in the way it promises something profoundly human and eternal. In it lies the promise of the presence of a God who is close by; very near us. He is not a God who is inert, but rather, One who beckons.
In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph and Jesus come to enter the Temple and to receive the purification rites as laid down in Jewish Law. The meaning of this event is made clearer to us in the telling of a second or background narrative concerning two elderly guardians of the Temple, Simeon, the old priest and the prophetess, Anna. Both are elderly. This couple provide a contrast in time and in place to the young family Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus. In the meeting of these two couples, Luke tells us that this is no chance or ordinary meeting, even though it was routine and traditional to present a boy child and for the mother to be ritually cleansed after the birth of her child. This purification had its equivalent in The Church of England not so long ago in the so-called ‘Churching’ of women following a pregnancy. In the blessing and the cleansing ceremony there includes a meeting and a greeting and taking place between two religious epochs…The Old and New Testament worlds are shown to us in the one time, the one place and in the one child, Jesus.
Luke paints this message on the broadest possible canvas : not only of history, but of the Divine purpose. The Old Testament man Simeon is more than a mere bystander. In the closing days of his life, he is privileged to utter prophecy in the recognition of the child as a prayer to God the Father: “Mine eyes save seen thy salvation” he cries “which thou hast prepared before the face of all people…” And this is very moving, as we see the old man, coming to the end of his life, meetin the new born baby and witnessing the outcome of his own life’s longing. He sees his own salvation. And TS Eliot marks, in a poem ‘A Song of Simeon’, the great themes of life and death in the immensity of time and sets them alongside Simeon's completed life.
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
TS Eliot ‘A Song of Simeon’.
Today is a Feast Day of Candles. There is always intended to be a procession in our churches as we follow Mary and Joseph into the Temple. In the carrying of candles, we bring the story to life in the manner of what the French have called a tableau vivant. A coming to life in us of things done and spoken long ago, and of the holding in our hands, as Simeon held in his arms, ‘The Light to Lighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people’. By these means we, after all these years, claim ownership of those things which this meeting offers, to our world's posterity.
As the Christ was presented to God, to Simeon and to the world, so we in our procession present ourselves to Christ. In turn Christ is presented to us, just as he is and just as we are, rather like that sculpture in Cavendish Square. This is ‘God’s presence and his very self and essence all divine’ as the hymn reminds us. This is the God who is very close to us, as one prayer has it ‘closer is he than breathing; nearer than hands and feet’. Let us then enter into this closeness with God and abide in him, as he abides in us. At least let us be open to the idea of his closeness and open our hearts to greet him. Let be present to the sureness of his being, just like Simeon.
Another sculpture across Cavendish Square and down a side road takes you to John Lewis’ store in Oxford Street where Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Winged Figure’ is also a beckoning presence. It offers a response in kind to Epstein’s 'Mother and Child'. The little walk across the square and into Oxford Street might tell us that this beckoning God is for ever present to us. We are invited now to seek him, and if possible to find him, just as Mary and Joseph and Simeon did all those years ago. Go and see for yourselves. After all, it's not too far away...