Friday, February 28, 2020

Bread and Circuses - Jesus is Tempted in the desert

Matthew 4.1-11

Preparation is everything. Olympic athletes prepare for the previous four years for their big chance. Four years of early mornings, strict diets, punishing exercise routines. I guess all that is why I will never be an Olympic athlete!

Jesus believed in preparation. In fact our best estimates are that he took over 30 years to prepare for his ministry. When he was ready - he set out to be baptised. But even then, there was still preparation to do. Jesus needed to complete his preparation by opening himself to the temptations that he knew might plague him as he began his ministry. So, after being baptised, he went off for 40 days, into the desert, to be, in Luke's words, 'tempted by the devil'.

Now, first of all we need to deal with this devil, character. Personally, I'm not too fond of the idea of God, all-powerful, loving God, allowing a demonic being to run around trying to tempt us away from God's love. For me, the devil is a metaphor, for all the evil human beings are perfectly capable of doing to each other, and even to themselves.

But whether the actual devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, or whether 'the devil' was Jesus' own human instincts playing themselves out...the effect was the same.

So - what happens next?

The devil - real or imagined - begins to make some suggestions for how his ministry might play out.

"Why don’t you turn those stones into bread?"

Remember that Jesus lived during the time of the Roman Empire. The Emperors were clever politicians. They understood that simple people needed just two basic things to keep them, and entertainment. Or, as the Roman expression went, “Bread and Circuses”. Places like the Coliseum in Rome put on great circuses of entertainment, and fed the crowds with free food. But Jesus had come to proclaim another kind of Kingdom….

When Jesus was challenged to turn stones into bread, we could say he was being tempted to follow the Roman way…"provide food for people, and they will follow you”.

But Jesus said no. "It is written: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."

We too provide 'bread' - here in church. We do it to open the doors of our hearts, to welcome our community into this building. But ultimately, we hope and pray that they will join us on the path to Life.

Jesus knew that food alone is not enough. If you feed someone, you only put off the time when they will ultimately die. But if you can change their heart, then you open up the opportunity of eternal life with God. Jesus wanted his ministry to count FOR EVER, not just until the next meal.

So, the devil tried a new tack. Effectively: "Why don’t you throw yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you?"

Bread...and Circuses. The old Roman trick. The devil was tempting Jesus to use his power to do amazing miracles that would wow the crowd. I mean - I’m pretty sure that if I threw myself off the top of the tower after this service, and had some angels rescue’d all think I was pretty fantastic. Word would soon spread around the City, and then around the country, of the amazing flying Rector!

But again, Jesus knew that amazing miracles would not turn people towards God. He knew that the changes we need to make take place on the inside, not on the outside. Faith is not about asking God to do amazing feats of supernatural’s about trusting that God is in control, and is with us through every circumstance of life...the mountain-top experiences that we thought about last week, for example...but also when the chips are down, and the going gets tough.

So Jesus rebuked his 'devil' - the darker potentials of his human nature: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

So the devil tried for the last time. He took Jesus to the top of a very high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the world laid out before him.

"Why don’t you worship me...then I will give you all this!"

Bread, circuses...and political power. The devil was tempting Jesus to establish a kingdom of political power. To raise up an army which would conquer the world. Many people expected that this was exactly what the Messiah would do.

I don't know about you, but after a life-time of interest in politics, even working for five years in the corridors of Westminster, I find myself pretty disillusioned with the world of politics right now. It's hard to put your trust in something which can be so easily usurped by powerful people, with deep pockets, who can influence an entire nation through lies and half-truths.

Jesus wasn’t interested either. He knew that all the political power in the world would not create the circumstances that he wanted. God's way is not the way of political and military power. God’s way is the way of turning the other cheek, of forgiveness to your brother, and of carrying your brother's burden. Jesus could have taken political power. He could have raised an army to smite the Romans. But unless the hearts of the people were changed, any political solution would only be temporary.

So what was Jesus’ response? "Away from me Satan! For it is written 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only!'”

In other words...what we need to do is put God first. Not bread, not circuses, not earthly power systems...God. God who made us. God who sustains us. God who has saved us through Jesus Christ our Lord.

So in this period of Lent, let me invite you to take some time to ask yourself what you are putting first in your life. What is it that you trust, and base your life on? What is the most important thing in your life?

A question that Scripture constantly throws at us is...'how are you going to spend your days?'. Are you going to spend them accumulating wealth that you can't take with you, or soaking up the modern day circus of TV?

Or are you going to spend your days building community, creating relationships - caring about others, and worshipping God for whose pleasure you were made. Will it be bread and circuses and the empty promises of political power...or will it be life, to the full, through a total dedication to loving God and loving our neighbour.

The choice is ours to make.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Quinquagesima Sunday

Quinquagesima. It’s a lovely word to get your tonsils round, isn’t it? Say it with me … Quinquagesima.

That’s the ancient Latin name given to this Sunday, the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday. What does it mean?  

It ought to mean something really exotic, didn’t it? You know, something like “the Feast of St Quinqua, holder of the golden orb of Gesima, slayer of dragons, and defender of the poor”.

‘Friad not.

It just means ‘fiftieth’. Today marks the fact that in 50 days from now, we will celebrate the rising of Christ from the tomb at Easter.

But hang on. Some of you are doing the math, and thinking to yourselves ‘that can’t be right! If Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, and its 40 days long, how can today be 50 days from Easter?

That’s because many of us forget that the 40 days of Lent do not include the seven Sundays of Lent. Sundays are days of celebration – each one a mini-Easter, during which the triumph of Christ over the grave is remembered and praised. They are also days of relief from the strictures of Lent. So for those of us who face the prospect of 40 days of abstinence with dread, the church kindly provides us with one day in seven when we are permitted to eat chocolate, or drink that glass of beer!  Then add the three days from today until Ashe Wednesday - and there is your 50 days until Easter.

More importantly than any ecclesiastical numbering system, today’s focus is really on the story of the Mount of Transfiguration. Our Gospel reading of this morning reminded us of how Jesus met on the mountain with Moses and Elijah – The Lawgiver and the ultimate Prophet (before Jesus himself). They strengthened him and encouraged him for the journey ahead…the journey to Jerusalem and the cross.

This evening’s readings pick up the same theme. The first reading came from one of the apocryphal books of the Protestant Canon….not part of the Canon of Scripture, but an ancient reading which still has something to teach us.

Ecclesiasticus is another juicy word to get our tongues around. It actually means ‘church book’ – because it is a text which was readily available to early Christians, and so it was often read in services. Its proper name is ‘the Wisdom of Sirach’ – or even more fully, ‘the Wisdom of Joshua, son of Sirach’. It was written around 200 years before the coming of Christ, and, as such, is one of the latest pre-Christian books that we have.

Sirach’s wisdom was a very personal thing. One the one hand, he advocated the use of physicians to heal the sick – demonstrating that 200 years before Jesus, the notion that sickness was a punishment for sin was beginning to lose its force. That, of course, was something that Jesus himself would go on to teach.

On the other hand, Sirach was certainly a man of his time. He advocates the use of harsh punishment to control both slaves and women! Which is one of the reasons why the Protestant church has never recognised his writings as canonical.

Nevertheless, Sirach was well known to the people of Jesus’ time, and the passage that we heard just now was one that had particular relevance. In it, Sirach praises Elijah for being the great prophet that he was, and also, intriguingly, promises that Elijah will return to ‘calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury’.

This one line, from a dubious and idiosyncratic writer, had huge intellectual force in its time…and it still resonates today. It is why the people of Jesus’ time kept asking whether he, or John the Baptist, were Elijah. It was somewhat of an obsession of theirs, because the Book of Sirach was so well known to them. Which just goes to show that if you repeat even a stupid idea enough times, people will begin to believe it – as we have seen in the recent politics of our own time.

The idea that Elijah would return to ‘calm the wrath of God’ is one of the main foundations of the idea that Jesus died to save us from an angry God. Which, again, I want to suggest to you is an idea that needs serious examination.

God might well be angry with humanity. In our second reading, which takes place immediately after Jesus comes down from the mountain, there is certainly a lot of frustration building up in him! “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?”

And then, when the disciples report that they couldn’t cast out a troublesome demon, Jesus thoroughly excoriates them for their lack of faith. “If you just had a little faith!” he says, in exasperation. “A tiny little bit of faith…as tiny as a mustard seed, then you could move mountains!”

Yes, God certainly is capable of wrath towards his faithless and perverse generation. But, to then make the leap of saying that Jesus had to die to somehow appease that wrath seems, to me, to load the meaning of the crucifixion with too much weight.

After all, we teach and believe that Jesus is God. There’s a certain weakness of logic in suggesting that God had to die in order to appease God’s own wrath. Isn’t there?

I rather prefer the theology of the 10th century office hymn which we just heard in the setting by Thomas Tallis. ‘O nata lux’ is a hymn of praise to Jesus, the ‘nata lux’ – he who was born of light, recalling the opening of John’s Gospel. ‘God of God. Light of Light.’

But the hymn then goes on to contemplate the meaning of Christ’s incarnation, and of course, that must include his death. For the unknown writer of the hymn, Jesus is the God who deigned to be hidden in flesh…the God who gives up his divinity, to become one of us, and to die as we might die. Why? The entire purpose of Jesus’ incarnation is summed up in the final line of the hymn: Jesus came to rescue the lost, and to join us in one body.

That – for me – is a far more compelling notion than the notion of a wrathful God whose anger can only be appeased by his own death. Instead, Jesus comes to us, perhaps out of frustration that we have failed to listen to Moses and Elijah, perhaps frustrated that we have not even the faith of a mustard seed, and he reaches out to us. He reaches out, and draws us in. He rescues us from our own blindness and stupidity, and draws us into union with himself. By sharing in our humanity, he dies our death. By sharing with us his divinity, he transcends death and draws us into his own body.

‘Listen,’ says St Paul, ecstatically absorbing the glorious truth, ‘I will tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.’ Like Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, we too will be changed and given glorious new existence in the kingdom of our father.

And all because of the event we will celebrate together, just a quinquagesima from now!


Transfiguration - From the mountain-top

From the Mountain Top

Matthew 17.1-9 - The Mount of Transfiguration

Have you ever had a mountaintop experience?  You know, one of those experiences that blows your mind - something you'll always remember?  I've had a few.  I've been at fantastic worship events, where emotion has overwhelmed me.  I've been at family celebrations, which I will always remember.  And I've had literal mountain-top experiences - breathing in the cool air and amazing views at the top of various hills and peaks.

Weddings are mountain-top experiences.  For weeks, months, or even years (sometimes) people look forward to their wedding day.  Everything has to be perfect...the music, the dress, the cake, the's all vitally important.  And then, at the wedding I well find yourself caught up into one of those mountaintop experiences.  Your senses are in over-drive - sound, sight, smell, hearing, touch...all are at peak efficiency.  You become determined to drink in every moment.

But you have to come down the mountain again. The next day, there are bills to be paid, journeys to be made.  New wives discover that their new husbands have smelly feet!  And new husbands discover that their beautiful new wife now wants to change them, stop them drinking and introduce them to couscous!  Reality comes flooding in, and life has to be faced again.

Our Gospel story today is of just one such mountain-top experience.  It’s called ‘the story of the Transfiguration’.  The disciples find themselves caught up in an event which underscores the whole ministry of Jesus.  There is a view back through history - as Jesus meets with people who have been part of the story of the past...Moses and Elijah, and is affirmed by them.  And then there's a peering into the future, as God's voice from heaven confirms again who Jesus is, and the importance of his mission. "This is my son, the Chosen One...listen to him!"

The disciples who have accompanied Jesus to the mountain-top are having the time of their lives. They don't want to leave...and they even suggest building shelters for Jesus, Elijah and Moses.  They seem to want to capture the moment, and stay in it forever.  But the thing about mountain-top experiences is - you have to come down from them again.  Discipleship involves following, and going on.

Today, we have heard Matthews’s account of the ‘Transfiguration’.  Scholars believe that it is based on Mark’s account - because they are remarkably similar, and Mark is believed to be the earliest gospel.  Mark places this story in a pivotal is dead centre at the middle of his 16 chapters.  Before the Transfiguration, Mark deals with Jesus’ ministry around Galilee - his teachings and his miracles.  Then comes the mount-top experience of the Transfiguration - Elijah, Moses and even the voice of God meeting with Jesus - strengthening him for what is to come.  Then, in Mark’s narrative, Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem...towards challenge, torture, death and ultimately, resurrection.

Mountain-top experiences are part of life - and they are often part of the life of faith.  Some people spend their whole lives trying to regain such experiences.  Mystics and saints have lived lives of ever increasing discipline and piety in the hope of touching, once more, the face of God.

But faithfulness is not achieved by freezing a moment of time...and trying to live in it forever. Faithfulness, and true discipleship, is achieved by following-on in confidence that God is leading...and that what lies ahead is even greater than what we have already experienced.  You have to come down the mountain again...and take what has been seen, learned and experienced on with you...on into the journey.

My hope is that our Sunday services are mini-mountain-top experiences.  They are a moment in the week when we experience God together, and through each other.  They are a moment in the week when we climb the mountain, and look beyond ourselves, beyond our day to day lives, and briefly touch the face of God.

But we have to come down the mountain.  We have to keep following on...following God into our every-day lives...taking what we have said, done and experienced with us.  We allow our worship, the words we say, the actions we do, to permeate our daily lives...colouring them, perfuming them.  Because of our mini-mountaintop experience we somehow live lives that are more infused with meaning, more alert to what God is doing in our lives, and through us in the lives of others.

One of the things I hear most often as a priest are the immortal words "you don't have to go to church to be a Christian" – usually from someone who is asking for baptism for their child, or to arrange a wedding - or sometimes from church members who haven’t been for weeks.

Of course you don't have to go to church to be a Christian...but it helps!  It’s a bit like learning to play in an orchestra.  You might be the most talented musician, who can play every scale and arpeggio at break-neck speed.  But, each musician only has one line of music to play.  It’s only when you play in the orchestra that you see how your one line of music fits with all the others - to create the symphony.  Through being together, like the disciples on the mountain-top, we get to drink together from The Source....we get to be inspired for the next week...we receive, together, the same spiritual food for the journey.

But it’s never about the’s always about the journey.  It should never be about the Sunday should always be about the day-by-day service...the giving of service to our families, our co-workers, our friends and our neighbours.  Inspired at the mountain-top, we go back into the valley to bring the light of Christ to everyone we meet.  Just as Jesus left the mountain and then set his face towards Jerusalem, healing and teaching along the way, so we too are called from this mountain top out into the world.

As we shall say at the very end of this service: Go, in the peace of Christ, to love and serve the Lord.  Amen.