Sunday, 18 February 2018

Jesus in the wilderness

Mark 1.9-15


Today I’d like to look at just two verses (v12-13). Jesus is in the wilderness.

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

The wilderness is a dry and barren land. It is hard. When we are in the wilderness we are weak, vulnerable, empty and lonely. We cannot depend on any of the things that we would normally rely on, and we are subject to forces that are much more powerful than us

The wilderness is the place where we know our poverty of Spirit: we are not in control, and the things that we normally put our trust in are useless
It is the place of mourning: where all that we cherish is lost to us, whether habits and rituals, comforts, possessions or people.
It is the place of meekness: where we are stripped of pride, where all our achievements and successes and status count for nothing.

We may find ourselves in the wilderness, in the desert, because of circumstances.
It could be loss and bereavement, a broken relationship, unanswered prayer, sickness, the crashing down of our dreams and hopes, a career failure, a moral failure, a breakdown or when we are simply brought low.
Or we may find ourselves in the wilderness because of a conviction.
We have heard the call of God to go into the desert.  
That might include a call to do something or go somewhere new, to move out of our comfort zone.
And, especially at this time of Lent, it might include fasting – maybe going without food for part of a day, for instance missing breakfast and lunch, or maybe going 24 hours without food; or it could be simply temporarily giving up some of those things that we look to provide us with comfort or meaning: buying things, social media, alcohol, work, doing good, even maybe speaking!
In my previous parish we used to have a silent retreat. For 48 hours a group of us went away to a retreat house, where we were together but did not speak – apart from in a few services. It was very special, but for people who were not used to it, it was scary. They thought how can I possibly do that? It was like a barren desert.

In Mark 1 we are told that Jesus was driven into the wilderness.  
It may have been through circumstances, but I suspect it was through a deep inner conviction that that was where he should have been.

And you will notice that unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not tell us what the actual temptations are that Jesus faced. As far as Mark is concerned all that is important is that we know that Jesus was tempted by Satan.
And I note that Jesus was tempted for 40 days.
Maybe he had that sense that he was to identify himself with the people of Israel, who had spent 40 years in the wilderness before they came into the promised land; or with Elijah who travels for 40 days before coming to the Mount of Horeb where he meets with God.

But 40 can also be a symbolic number. It can stand for ‘a long time, but a time with a definite end’. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights at the time of the flood; the spies are in the land of Canaan for 40 days; Moses was on the mountain receiving the law for 40 days and nights, Goliath challenges Israel for 40 days; Jonah gives the city of Nineveh 40 days to repent; and there are other references to 40 days. And if that is the case then these 40 days could refer to Jesus’ entire earthly ministry. The Spirit ‘drove’ Jesus from heaven to earth, where he was tempted by Satan, was with the wild beasts (crucifixion) and the angels waited on him (and we think of the angel who appeared to the women at the resurrection).

That is speculation. What we do know is that Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days.

And we see here that

1.      The wilderness is a place of temptation.

When we are stripped of everything, we begin to discover what is central in our lives.
We can turn to God, or we can turn from God.

And although Mark doesn’t tell us here which temptations Jesus faced, he does later speak of the great temptation that Jesus faced: the temptation to avoid going into the ultimate wilderness place – of going to the cross.

In Mark 8, Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Peter rebukes him. And Jesus replies, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’ (Mark 8.33)
That is the temptation Jesus faced all through his life:
-          to use his power to save himself from going into the wilderness in obedience to God.
-          to avoid walking the way of the cross

And for the people of Israel in the Old Testament the wilderness was the place of testing.
In a highly significant passage, Deuteronomy 8, Moses speaks to the people and tells them, “God led you these forty years in the wilderness in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna ..  [He did this] to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good” (Deut 8.2,16).

They had to choose. To trust in God and go on or to turn back to Egypt. To grumble against God or to believe that he would provide for them. To receive and obey the law that he gave, or to create their own false gods.

And for us, the wilderness can be a place of temptation.
It is the place where we have to decide whether we turn to God or from God, whether we trust God and whether we obey God.

Please do not think that it is wrong to be tempted.
Jesus, we are told was tempted just like us (Hebrews 4.15).
And the Greek word for temptation and for testing is the same word, Peirazmos.

What is important is that we do not play with temptation.
There is a nice story of a mother who told her daughter that she must not swim in the river on her way back from school. The daughter agreed, but mum wisely decided to check her bag as she left the following morning for school. She found in it her daughter’s swimming costume. ‘What’s this?’, she asked. ‘It’s OK mum’, the daughter replied, ‘I only put it in in case I was tempted’.

More seriously, if you know that something is a weakness for you, just don’t go there. If you know that you are more likely to look at pornographic or inappropriate websites when you are tired, give yourself a rule that you won’t go online after 10pm. If you know when you are with a certain person you do stupid things, don’t go with them. If you know you can’t go past that shoe shop without buying something, don’t walk that way.

The early Christian writers are helpful on this.
They speak about how first comes the thought, then delight in the thought and then comes the action.
The wrong thoughts will come. The question is what we do with them. If we dwell on the delight of the thought, then we are most likely to move from thinking about it to doing it. Instead we are to get rid of the thought and not dwell on it. Pray and ask Jesus to fill you – use the Jesus prayer.
I know it is hard, but we are not on our own. We have a promise that ‘God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you maybe able to endure it’ (1 Cor 10.13)

Oh, and by the way, if you fall and give in, don’t then fall into the temptation of total despair. If you turn to God, confess your sin (even if you have lost count of the number of times that you’ve fallen), and he will forgive you and he will continue to work in you so that you will be able to stand in the future.

The wilderness is the place of temptation

2.      In the wilderness Jesus was with the wild beasts

People have understood this in two ways.

The passage could be taken in a positive way:
Jesus was with the wild beasts – a vision of harmony and the new future creation, when the wolf will lie with the lamb and the child will play with a venomous snake.

And we read of the desert fathers and mothers. Stories tell us how although they were terrorised by demons who often came in the shape of wild beasts, they also lived in harmony with the real wild beasts. Whatever we make of them, stories about St Anthony or St Francis or here of St Sergei of Radonezh, who you often see being accompanied by a bear, speak of the future harmony of all creation.

And the wilderness can be a place of beauty and harmony, of stillness and quiet, of oneness with nature and God. And that is one of the reasons why we can often long for the wilderness.

But I think that when this verse says that Jesus was with the wild beasts, it is speaking of how he was surrounded by danger.

The only other reference in the bible to ‘wild beasts’, at least in my version of the bible, is in Gen 31.39, where Jacob speaks of how the wild beasts have torn apart sheep in his flock.
And Psalm 22, which Jesus quotes as he hangs on the cross when he cries out ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me’, speaks of ‘Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion’ (Ps 22.13)

And it is important to remember the first readers of Mark’s gospel. For some of them the reference to wild beasts was frighteningly relevant. There was a very real danger that they would be arrested and thrown into public arenas to be trampled or torn in pieces by wild beasts.

And there are times when we can feel that we are surrounded by wild beasts, when we are very little and very vulnerable and it is as if we are about to be torn apart.

But the good news is that Jesus has been there. He has walked through that valley of the shadow of death. He has been there with the wild beasts and he has overcome, and he can give us the strength to overcome.

3.      The wilderness is a place of encounter with God

Angels, we are told, ‘waited on him’
[icon of baptism]
It is interesting that in Luke and Matthew, the angels minister to Jesus after the temptations.
In Mark it is possible to think that the angels minister to Jesus while he was in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.

You see it is when we identify with Jesus in his crucifixion, when we are desolate, weak, lonely, empty and naked, that we can also be most close to God, and most aware of his presence. Paul writes, ‘’I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3.10)

Last week I read part of a letter from Hugh Latimer. He was one of the bishops who, in the C16th was arrested by Mary. He was in prison, awaiting his execution. They would tie him to a stake, surround it with wood, and then set it on fire. That is a pretty extreme wilderness place. And it was a place of testing for him. He was surrounded by wild beasts. And he writes, “Pardon me, and pray for me. Pray for me, I say, pray for me, I say. For I am sometime so fearful, that I would creep into a mouse hole.” But then he adds, “sometime God doth visit me again with his comfort.”

I pray none of us will ever know anything like that. But we will find ourselves in the wilderness, and we will face trials or temptations, and we will be surrounded by the wild beasts. But James writes, ‘’My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you maybe mature and complete, lacking in nothing’ (James 1.2-4)


Thursday, 8 February 2018

Hope and the transfiguration






We’re well into February, had long periods without sun, the snow is frozen and there is still a long way to go before the spring. 

And life for many is hard. Some of you work long hours without much pay, doing jobs that you don't enjoy. And some are stressed at work or home. Relationships are going pear shaped. Or we face sickness: our own or somebody else’s. This week I spoke with three people who need urgent medical treatment and are not able to afford it.

And for some, it is not just hard but brutal. Again this week I visited the MPC centre and have also spoken with other people working with refugees and people who have been trafficked. I’ve heard of a woman thrown out of an upstairs window because she didn’t please the person who had paid for her. I’ve heard of a grown man breaking down in floods of tears because he finds himself here, having been promised that it was a route into Europe, without any papers, any accommodation and any money. And some of you are working with such people, trying to help and support them, and sometimes it gets a bit too much.

And to make life even worse, we are about to enter Lent! Those who are strict Orthodox will go on a rigorous fast. Those of us who are Anglican will probably give up chocolate! In times gone by, the fast was not really an option. It was a necessity. The food that had been preserved for winter had run out.
And in Lent we remember both the 40 days that Jesus was in the wilderness when he was tempted by Satan, and we follow the journey that he took – denying himself in obedience to God – as he walked to the cross. We see humanity at its worst: driven by hatred, greed, jealousy, fear, cowardice, vengeance. And we see the betrayal, denial, the lies, the mockery and the cruelty 

So it is intriguing that, just before Lent begins, we have this reading from Mark 9:2-9: the story of the transfiguration, when the glory of God is seen on and in Jesus.

The transfiguration is a significant event.
It is mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
John doesn’t mention it, which is intriguing, but he doesn’t need to. All the way through the gospel he shows us the glory of Jesus.
But Peter mentions it in one of the letters that he writes. He says, “we [were] eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1.16-18)
It is the only event in Jesus life, apart from his death and resurrection, that is mentioned by the New Testament letter writers – so it must be significant

And the transfiguration is very important in Orthodox theology.

The icon of the transfiguration is important. In many of the festival rows it comes not before the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but after.
It is a vision of the future, when we will be in heaven transfigured as Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus.

It speaks of the transcendence of death: what unites Moses and Elijah is that neither of them is recorded as dying, and they have no tomb. Their bodies disappeared. And yet, here they are, speaking with Jesus about 1000 or so years after they had lived. And they are speaking with the one who will rise from the dead, and whose body blasted out of the tomb.

It speaks of intimacy with Jesus: they are speaking with Jesus. We know what they are talking about because Luke tells us in his account of the transfiguration – Jesus’ death in Jerusalem, and how through his death people will be set free from the captivity of sin and death.

And it hints of future glory, the glory that we will share as we look on the one who is glorious. Transfiguration is what Orthodox theology means when it speaks of theosis, of deification. We will see the eternal Son of God as he is, and we will become like him.

So what we have here, it seems, is a glorious burst of sunlight before the long hard winter. Peter, James and John see Jesus glorified, before they see Jesus led – abused, beaten and battered - to the place of crucifixion.  

Perhaps some of us have had our own transfiguration moments – a time when we have encountered his presence, when we have seen the glory of God.

Now I have no authority for what I am about to say – it is not clearly taught in the bible – but it does seem in my experience that the people who have the most overwhelming and authentic experiences of God, encounters with God are often those people who have to go through some pretty hard stuff in the future.

Think of Paul. He had an overwhelming conversion experience. He sees the risen Jesus – in fact Jesus is so radiant that he is blinded - and he hears the voice of Jesus speaking to him. But when Ananias goes to see him three days later and pray for Paul’s sight to be restored, Jesus speaks to Ananias and tells him that Paul will speak of him to Kings, to Gentiles and to the Jews; and he then adds, ‘And I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name’.

I think of Barbara in my previous church. She was kneeling at the communion rail, and suddenly Jesus was standing in front of her. She said, ‘He was there. I could reach out and touch his robe’. She was overwhelmed by his presence.
A couple of months later her daughter committed suicide.

I just wonder whether Jesus, in his mercy, was giving her a transfiguration moment to get her through what she was going to have to go through

Now please, do not worry! That does not mean that if you have had a transfiguration moment you are about to go through hell. But I do know this: that if we do have to go there, then whatever lies before you, he will be there.

Responding to the transfiguration
Mark tells us quite a bit about how Peter, John and James react to the transfiguration: they are terrified.

Most of us become jelly when we stand in the presence of those we consider awesome.
It might be a celebrity, a VIP, or even just a stunningly attractive man or woman, whatever takes you!
Well, when Peter, James and John see a transfigured Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah they become jelly.

The icon of the transfiguration shows them prostrate.
Here James is covering his eyes, John is being very thoughtful and Peter: He opens his mouth and he speaks, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’.

I love it! Mark adds, “He did not know what to say”. And since most theologians think that Mark’s gospel originated with Peter - Peter was effectively telling Mark what to write - you can almost imagine Peter cringing as he thinks back to the incident, ‘Did I really say that?’

I mean, let’s be honest.
Does Jesus, shining in glory, really need a bracken shelter?
Do Moses and Elijah, who have technically been dead for the last 1000 or so years, need to sit in a bivouac?
Of course not.

And it makes no difference that what Peter is suggesting is something religious. The word he uses for ‘shelter’ is the word that is used to describe the sort of simple huts that the people of Israel had to make every year to remember the time when they were wandering in the desert and living in shelters.

So poor Peter. He is terrified. I suspect he feels he has to say something. And he opens his mouth. And perhaps deep down, Peter is thinking: how can I capture this moment?

You see I suspect that a lot of what we do when we are religious is attempt to capture those moments when we have met with God. We want God on tap.
We think that if we do the right thing in the right way then God will turn up tomorrow in the same way that he turned up yesterday.

Please don’t ever think that you can bottle God.
He’s not a genii in a lantern, and the only thing you need to do is rub the lantern, and out he pops.

God will come to you in a special way, but he will come to you in that way when he chooses to come.

Listening to Jesus
But there is one other thing that I think is very important in this passage.

The voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved’.
We’ve already heard that at the baptism.
The bit that is completely new are the words, ‘Listen to him!’

That is what this is all about.
We are being told to listen to Jesus, the one who is more important than Moses and Elijah, the one who is the beloved Son of God.

Some of us may have had transfiguration moments, and some of us may have not. It was only James, John and Peter who saw the transfigured Jesus, and Jesus warns them not to tell the other 9 disciples until after the resurrection – because they just won’t get it.

But what is important with Peter, James and John is not that they hear the voice from the cloud, but that they do what the voice from heaven told them to do.
And for that matter, what is important is that we do what the voice from heaven tells us to do. We need to listen to Jesus.

And as we face the difficulties of life, the winter that just seems to get colder and darker and harder, the sheer hard slog of being a disciple of Jesus, the constant battle against temptation, the ongoing struggles we have with our lack of love and spiritual laziness and jealousy and self-centredness and lack of forgiveness and selfishness; as we battle the fear that paralyses, and as some of us face some pretty overwhelming situations .. it is good to remember that all we need to do is to listen to the voice of Jesus.
  
So can I urge you please this Lent – far more important than giving up chocolate or alcohol – to spend time listening to Jesus, listening to his word. Put aside time, if you can each day, to read some of the bible and to ask him to speak to you. Use the back of our notice sheet, or use one of the sets of readings on youversion – I’ll put a link up on our website and facebook page – or read through one of the gospels. And listen to Jesus.

Because it is the voice of Jesus, the eternally beloved Son of God, which will hold us and protect us and guide us and transform us; it is the promise of Jesus that he will always be with us – whether we have had a transfiguration experience or not – and that he will never allow us to go through something that is too much for us to bear, that he will give us his Holy Spirit, that we are forgiven and that he is changing us, that his kingdom will come, that justice will be done, that there will be resurrection, and that we will one day, like Moses and Elijah, see him in glory and be ourselves transfigured into glory. It is the voice of Jesus which gives us hope.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Why Jesus couldn't do many miracles in Nazareth - a suggestion.

Mark 6.1-6

We are told that Jesus 'could do no deeds of power' in his home town.
Why could he do no 'deeds of power' there?

Forgive me; this is a little bit speculative.

There is a film in the UK that was shown on British television on 21 June 1969, and subsequently banned (although clips were shown from 2011). It is a documentary about the Royal Family, filming their everyday life, and it shows them living life in a way that is remarkably similar to every other family. It was banned, because it was felt that it stripped mystique away from the Royal Family, it made them too ordinary. If people see them living just like us, then people may start to question why we do, in fact, treat them differently.

That, I think, is the opposite of what is going on here.
Jesus comes to his home town, and the film of his life shows that he is far from ordinary. They are astounded by his teaching, and they have heard of the wonderful things that he has done. But even though he is far from ordinary, people are trapped in their little world, with its boundaries and boxes, and they are blinded by their pride, identity insecurity, envy and jealousy.
And they cannot begin to conceive that Jesus really is different. 

They think he must have gone somewhere - a first century Hogwarts where he could learn all these special powers - because they ask, 'Where did this man get all this?'
They want to know, because then it all makes sense, and they can send their children there, and they in turn will be able to do the sort of things that Jesus can.
They simply cannot accept that Jesus is different.

We know, as people who have read the gospel of Mark, that the reason that Jesus could teach like this and do the wonders he did is because he is different.
The demons and aliens recognise that he is the 'Son of David', that is language to describe the Messiah, and that he is the Son of God.
But his own people could not accept that he was any different to them.
And I think that is the reason Jesus 'could do no deed of power there'.

It was not from lack of power or compassion - that is clearly not the case, because he does cure some sick people.
Rather, he 'could not' do them because there was no point in doing them.

Given that they were refusing to believe that he came from God, if he did such works then all it would do is wow them - and then make them more hostile to him. Why won't he tell us where he got all this?
And Jesus was never driven simply by the compassion of the moment.
If he had just healed all the people who came to him who were suffering, then it would have taken up every minute of his day, been very localised and limited, and inevitably been temporary. Those people who had been healed, would have fallen ill again, would suffer again, and would die.
No, Jesus was driven by a much deeper purpose and a greater compassion: he had come to set free all who put their trust in him as Messiah and Son of God - to set us free ultimately from all suffering, from sin and death.
That is why, before he goes to the cross, Jesus' main focus is not on healing, but on teaching.
We see that in the second half of verse 6: 'Jesus went about the villages teaching'.
The answer to unbelief was not to wow them, but to teach them.

So Jesus 'could not' do such 'deeds of power' in his home town of Nazareth, because it would have been pointless. The deeds were meant to point to who he was, that he is the Messiah bringing in the Kingdom of God, and if people are point blank refusing to even consider that he is the Son of God, then why do the signs?

We do need to be careful that we are not blinded by the little boxes in our minds which tell us what is possible. And we need to be careful that we are not blinded by our pride, envy and jealousy - of a Royal family who live just like us, or of 'one of us' who is different.
It is that pride, identity insecurity, envy and jealousy which ultimately blinds us to seeing who Jesus is.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

The presentation of Jesus. Getting the centre - right!



Today is known as the feast of the presentation.
Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus into the temple.

The temple was at the very heart of the Israelite community.
It was the geographical focal point of the nation: a bit like the Kremlin here.

And the temple was the heart of the nation. It was where God said that he would have his dwelling place.

That is why the destruction of the temple – first by the Babylonians in 586 BC and then by the Romans in 70 AD – were two of the most traumatic events in the history of the Jewish people

Today. Well this is a picture of temple area now – with the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Only part remaining of Herod’s great temple is the wailing wall
But this is how it might have looked at the time of Jesus

Well today, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple.

And what we read in these verses is the temple operating as God intended: the heart was beating right.

In Luke 2 we see a picture of what the temple should be.
                                                       
The temple was a place for purification
Luke combines two events here: the presentation of Jesus and the purification of Mary. The sacrifice offered was the sacrifice that was offered on the 40th day after the birth for the mother, who had become ritually unclean because having a baby involves a little bit of blood. And interestingly, the passage speaks of the sacrifice being made for both Joseph and Mary. Normally it would just be for the mother, but I wonder if – in the rather unusual circumstances of Jesus’ birth – Joseph might have been more immediately involved than would have been expected for a husband, and so become ritually unclean.

But the temple clearly was a place for purification, where sacrifice was offered for those things which ritually defiled a person, such as blood, and for those things that morally defiled a person.
And purification, cleansing was needed because a person could not come into the presence of God while were unclean.

It was a place of presentation, of offering
Mary and Joseph have also come to present Jesus to God. They are offering their son to God.
They recognise that he is a gift from God, that his life belongs to God, and that he belongs to God.

From very early on, the law stated that all firstborn belonged to God.
The firstborn of the flock were to be brought to to the temple, or to its early equivalent, to be sacrificed
And the firstborn child, the child who ‘opened the womb’, was not to be sacrificed, but was to be redeemed by a 5 shekel payment

It reminds us of the very earliest memories of the people
-          When Abel offers the firstborn of the flock to God
-          When Abraham was called to sacrifice his first-born son Isaac. He is prepared to do it, even though he has waited 70 or more years for the gift of this child, and he takes his son Isaac to Mount Moriah with every intention of sacrificing him. But at the very last moment, even as the knife was raised, God again intervenes, and a lamb is slain in place of Isaac
-          When Hannah prays for a child and promises that her first born will be dedicated to God. And when Samuel is born, and when he gets to the age when he does not need his mother, she keeps to her word and sends him to the boarding school for prophet training at the temple.

So here, Joseph and Mary bring their baby to the temple in recognition that he belongs to God.

It was a way of saying, “God, we realise that he belongs to you, and we will bring him up for you and not for us”.

And for them that was very real:
Only a few verses but 12 years later, when they lose Jesus on their way home and have to return to Jerusalem to look for him, they search for 3 days. And where do they find him? In the temple. And 12-year-old Jesus says to them, “Why were you looking for me. Did not you realise I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Later, we are told about another incident when Mary and Jesus’ brothers are seriously worried about him, and they want to take him away. Someone tells Jesus, ‘Your mother and brother are outside calling you’. And Jesus answers, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking around those who are with him, he says, ‘here are my mother and my brothers and sisters’. That is quite a hard lesson for Mary to learn – but she has offered him to God.

Here the temple is a place of proclamation, of hearing the Word of God
In this case, it was both Simeon and Anna, two people who were probably quite old (we’re told that Anna was 84, and Simeon prays that God will now let him die – so we assume that he is also getting on a bit).
Simeon speaks of the child: using words that are known to some of us as the Nunc Dimittis, which is a staple part of evening prayer. He proclaims that this child is the salvation God has promised, and that the child will bring glory to Israel by being the one who will reveal God’s purposes, ways, heart to the Gentiles, to non-Jews. And Anna speaks of the ‘redemption of Israel’

The temple is a place of blessing
Simeon blesses the couple, but it is a strange blessing.
Normally we would think of blessing in terms of wishing someone health, многие леты, prosperity, peace, prosperity, fulfilment, joy – all those things that are often spoken at weddings or birthdays.

But the blessing here is about how Jesus, their son, will impact on their lives and the lives of many.
He is destined for the falling and rising of many.
I had always taken that as meaning that he would cause some to fall and some to rise.
But one of the commentaries says that Simeon may be speaking of the same people. You can only rise, and the word used is a word that is used of the Resurrection, until you have fallen. You can only meet with God when you admit your need, sinfulness and brokenness before God.
But this child is also destined to divide people.
Some will receive him, many will reject him.
I think about the philosopher Nietzsche: he rejected Christ, because he said that Christ stood for all that was weak and deserved to die. Jesus stood against survival of the fittest. He stood beside the weak and the vulnerable and the broken. Indeed, he said you had to be broken to come to him. And so Nietzsche called Christianity the religion of slave people.
I think about the Soviet authorities who called anybody who believed in Jesus mad, because they could not cope with a vision of reality that was different to their vision. If you could not see that life was as they proclaimed it, and if you believed in an unseen God, then you must be mad.
I think of one of my sociology tutors at Durham, who said that he was not prepared to be a Christian because he was not prepared to let anyone else tell him how to live his life.
And Simeon blesses them by telling them that a sword will pierce Mary’s soul: speaking either of how his words would penetrate her heart and convict her, or of how she would know such grief as she watches him die at the cross or, in all likelihood, of both.

The temple here is a place of prayer
Anna is constantly in the temple, worshipping with prayer and fasting.
When Solomon – about 800 years earlier - built the first temple, he prays a prayer of dedication. ‘O God’, he says, ‘this is where you have said that you will live on earth. So please, hear and answer the prayer of anyone who turns towards this temple and who prays’.
Fundamentally, the temple was to be a place of prayer.
It was to be the meeting point between men and women and God.

And Anna?
Well, I think we can guess what she is praying and fasting for. It is what she speaks to the people about: the redemption of Israel.
Here is a woman who is holding onto the promises of God in the past, and prays that he will act, that he will send the Messiah, his ruler, the descendant of David, who will bring about God’s kingdom of justice and right-ness and peace.
And Anna is very blessed. Many people had prayed that prayer in the past, but they had not lived to see their prayer answered. Anna prays that prayer, and on that morning when Mary brings her baby into the temple, she sees the answer.

And I notice too that the temple is a place of praise.
Both Simeon and Anna praise God.
They praise him for being faithful to his word, for answering their prayers, for sending Jesus.

This was how the temple should have operated:
as a place of presentation, of purification, of proclamation, of blessing, of prayer and of praise.

But we know that it did not work like that.
Later, when this child grows up, he visits the temple again. Only this time he goes into it with a whip made from cords, and he turns over the tables and drives out the money changers. You have made this place, he says, which is meant to be a place of prayer, a den of thieves.

JESUS THE NEW TEMPLE
And because of that, Jesus has come to bring in a new covenant, a new era in our relationship with God. And in this new era, we do not now need the temple, because – says Jesus – he is the new temple. He is the new one who is at the heart of our community. He is the new meeting place with God.

And so for us, it is when we come to Jesus – whether that is when we come to church, or stand in front of an icon of Christ, or come forward to receive communion, or read the bible, or put aside time in the day to pray – it is then that we

Come to Jesus for purification.
As citizens of the new era, we do not need to worry about ritual uncleanness. Jesus is much more concerned about what is going on in here. We come to him to confess our sin.
And in this new era we do not need to make sacrifices. He has made the once and for all sacrifice for us.
Please do not ask me to explain what is going on at communion – it is a mystery that is quite beyond me – but I do know this. We are not re-sacrificing Christ here. We are receiving the benefits of his once and for all time sacrifice, as the book of Hebrews and the BCP make so clear.
And please in our devotions we must do nothing that takes away from the absolute completion of that event. You are forgiven, you are going to heaven not because of anything you did, nor because of anything I do, but because Jesus died on the cross for you. All you need to do is to believe it.

We come to offer ourselves: we recognise that our life is gift, that we do not belong to ourselves but to God, that we are first slaves of God.

Archbishop Bill Burnett writes of a significant moment in his ministry when he went into his chapel – one of the privileges of being an Archbishop is that you have your own chapel – and, having read the passage in Romans 12 about offering your bodies to God, went through each part of his body, beginning with the toes on his feet and ending with the hair on his head, dedicating it to God.
I’m not quite sure how my hair can be used in the service of God, but I’ll leave that up to him!

And we come to Jesus to hear his word: he speaks: through his word, through his people, and sometimes very directly.

And we come to Jesus for blessing: and we need to remember the blessing that Simeon pronounced on Mary and Joseph.
God’s blessing is not that things will go well for us here. It is much richer than that.
Things certainly did not go well for Mary. She watched her own son being crucified.
And we hear such dreadful stories of tragedy – and please don’t tell me that those who suffered were never blessed by God.
No, the blessing of God is that tragedy may well come, that we will fall – but that Jesus is the key to it all, that he will reveal our innermost thoughts, and if we are prepared to fall, to allow his word to penetrate into our souls then we will rise.

And we come to Jesus to pray. We pray to him, because he is praying for us.
I know that some traditions pray to the Saints, but the Anglican Church has always made it clear that we pray with the saints, but always to Jesus. And to be honest I do wonder why, when people pray, we don’t go directly to the top man. He knows you and he loves you. He is your temple.
And what do we pray for: well yes, our daily bread – the things that we long for or worry about – but we also, like Anna, pray for ‘the redemption of Israel, of the people of God’: we pray that God’s Kingdom will finally be revealed in all its fullness on earth

And we come to Jesus to praise.
This is the one I find difficult. In some areas I am dreadfully sceptic and a bit of a pessimist. So when something good happens, I think, ‘it would have happened anyway’ or ‘yes, but something bad will happen tomorrow’.
But there is an answer to scepticism and pessimism, and that is praise.
God thank you for this gift you have given me today, for that little answer to prayer (not being sick on plane). And yes, I know I may well get sick tomorrow, but I know you will be there to get me through. Thank you for being there, thank you for your faithfulness and thank you that you rose from the dead and in the very end I’m on the winning side!

We do need to get the centre right
Sometimes, by the grace of God, they got the temple right; but most of the time it went horribly wrong.
We need to get our centre right. We need to come to Jesus and by the grace of God, to receive his forgiveness, offer ourselves afresh in our service to God, hear his word, receive his blessing, seek him in prayer and respond in praise.
Which is, basically, what we try to do each time we come together.


Saturday, 20 January 2018

Standing at the back of the wardrobe



In the bible study after the service last week, Jenna was telling us that when she was small she would sometimes go into her wardrobe and see if the back opened into a magical land.

She had been reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis, and if you haven’t read it, or the other books in the series, then it is an absolute must. The children in the story enter Narnia, this magical other land, this parallel universe, by walking into and through a large wardrobe.

Pullman, in his Northern Lights series, envisages alternative parallel universes – and there are certain places where the border between that world and this world is very thin, and it can be cut by a special knife. Now I know that he was trying to write an anti-religious book – to do, he claimed, a CS Lewis for atheism – but actually the idea of an alternative world that is just there, but invisible – is one which Jesus touches on in todays reading.

He says to Nathaniel, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’.

In the Old Testament, one of the earliest people who we are introduced to is a young man called Jacob. Jacob is the son of Isaac, and he has a twin brother, Esau. They are very different. Esau loved doing outdoor manly stuff, playing Rugby or ice hockey, while Jacob – he is the more sensitive type - was more than happy to stay at home and spend time on the computer. Well he would have done, if they had had computers then!
And Esau and Jacob don’t really get on. The problem for Jacob is that big manly hairy Esau is a few minutes older than him, and that means he has all the advantages. He will inherit from his father, and to him belongs the special family blessing.
So Jacob, with his mums support – because dad prefers Esau and mum prefers Jacob – relationships were mildly dysfunctional in this family – sets out to deceive his father, and swindle Esau of his inheritance and the all important family blessing. It’s a great story, and you can read it in Genesis 27

But now Esau is mad. And Jacob has to run for his life. His mum gives him a packed lunch and sends him off to visit uncle Laban, who lives a very long way away.

But on the way to Laban, Jacob comes to a place where he falls asleep. And as he sleeps he dreams that he sees a ladder reaching up to heaven, and angels were going up and down that ladder. And in the dream, God speaks to Jacob. In the morning, when Jacob wakes up, he ‘was afraid’. He says, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’ (Gen 28.17). And he named it Bethel, which means ‘the house of God’.

God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and he became the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. And from that moment on, there were particular special places in the history of the people of Israel where God met with his people.
There was the tabernacle, the tent which came with the people of Israel when they were in the wilderness.
There was the sanctuary at Shiloh (that is where Samuel was when he heard the voice of God),
and then there was the Temple in Jerusalem.  

They were back of the wardrobe places, places where the temporal visible world met the eternal invisible world. They were places where the angels ascended and descended between heaven and earth

So when Jesus says to Nathaniel, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’, he is making a staggering claim.
He is saying that he is now the wardrobe, he is now the knife, he is now the gateway into the eternal world.
If you want to hear heaven speaking to you, you listen to him.
If you want to glimpse what earth looks like from the heaven perspective, you look at what it looked like to him.
If you want to see what it would be like if heaven lived on earth, you look at him.
If you wish to glimpse the peace or the glory of heaven here on earth, then you go to him.

That is why when Jesus is around, water turns into wine.
It is why loaves and fishes become a banquet for 5000 people.
It is why a man blind from birth is enabled to see.
It is why Lazarus was raised from the dead.
With Jesus around, those angels are busy, going up and down, doing overtime.
You can imagine them saying to Jesus, ‘Lord, please give us a break’ – except that they delight in that work.

And because Jesus is the gateway from earth to heaven, if you want someone to take you from here to there, you go to him.

Jesus is not, by the way, saying that there are no longer special places.
There are special places which, by God’s blessing, seem to be places where the barrier between this world and that world is very thin.
They are places which free us to think or wonder or where we encounter peace or something that is ‘other’.
But what Jesus is saying is that if you want to go through the barrier, then you don’t need to go to those places. But, even if you are in those places, you do need to come to him.

Jesus came to earth to be that door, that gateway.
He came to invite people to come through that door

That is what he does here. He calls Philip

We often speak of finding faith, finding Jesus.

There is a cartoon of an evangelist who is standing outside somebody’s open front door. He is saying to the occupant, ‘Have you found Jesus?’  And inside the house, if you look a bit closer, you notice a pair of sandaled feet appearing underneath one of the long curtains. Jesus is hiding!

But here I note that Philip doesn’t find Jesus; Jesus finds him. In fact, Jesus seems to go out of his way to find Philip.
‘The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” don’t find Jesus, but Jesus finds them.

That was quite unusual for the time.
The Rabbi did not find the disciple. The disciple found the Rabbi. They would go to him and say, ‘Can I be your disciple’. It was a bit like choosing a university or college. You do the tour and then you put in your bid.

But with Jesus it doesn’t seem to work like that.
On one occasion someone came and said to him, ‘let me be your follower’, and Jesus puts him off.
On another occasion when a crowd wanted to make him their leader, he went and hid.
Instead it was Jesus who went up to people and who said to them, ‘Follow me’.
That is why he later says to his followers, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’ (John 15.16).

Christianity is an exclusive club. Before you become a member you need to hear the invitation – from Jesus or from one of his followers. You need to hear his voice. You need to be called.

With Nathaniel it is even more clear: Jesus ‘sees’ Nathaniel even while Nathaniel is being sniffy about Jesus because of where he comes from: ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’. He implies that Nazareth was a bit of a – and you can probably imagine the word that one international senior politician might have used. But when it says that Jesus ‘saw’ Nathaniel, and describes him as being a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit, what we are being told is that Jesus saw Nathaniel and knew Nathaniel. He saw into Nathaniel’s heart. And he knew that Nathaniel would be one of his disciples, followers.
This was not Nathaniel’s initiative.
This was not Nathaniel finding Jesus, but Jesus finding Nathaniel.

Perhaps listening to this, you worry. Have I been invited? Have I received an invitation? Does Jesus know me? Has he called me?

I suggest that because you are here – whoever you are, and for whatever reason you have come: even if it is just to practise your English – if you have ‘heard’ this: heard it with your inner ear – then you have heard the invitation of Jesus. You have been invited. You have been called.

But like Philip and Nathaniel you need to respond.

This is the invitation to come to the back of the wardrobe, to meet Jesus, to put your trust in him and to live as a back of the wardrobe person, with one foot on earth and the other foot in heaven.

I’ve just been reading a very helpful book on prayer, A Praying Life, by Paul Miller. It is about how we live as back of the wardrobe people. It speaks of how we can come as children people to our heavenly Father. It speaks of overcoming cynicism and reminds us that God wants us to ask. And it is about learning to see the pattern of God’s work in your life, to see how God is writing his story on the story of your life.
Of course, that story is not finished here on earth, and so his last chapter is about those prayers and desires that remain unanswered here on earth.
What makes the book very helpful is the fact that he is the father of a severely mentally disabled daughter, Kim. For 25 years he and his wife were praying that she would speak. Those prayers were answered, and she now speaks with an artificial voice through a computer. Sometimes Kim accompanies her father when he speaks, and she says something herself.
On one occasion, when Kim came with her father on such an event, Paul writes, ‘a little girl came up to Kim as we were finishing dinner and asked, “Why don’t you speak?” Kim leaned over her speech computer, which was propped on the table, and typed, “I will have a beautiful voice in heaven”.  

That is what it means to live between heaven and earth.

But I think that this passage teaches us that there is another dimension living at the back of the wardrobe.
When Jesus calls Philip, Philip spontaneously goes and calls Nathaniel.

And when you have responded to the call of Jesus, and come to the person on whom angels ascend and descend, and when you are standing with one foot on earth and one foot in heaven, you will – naturally and spontaneously – want to do what Philip did.
You may not know how to do it. It is interesting that later, when some Greeks come to Philip and say that they want to see Jesus (in John 12), he doesn’t know what to do. He goes and asks Andrew, ‘What do we do?’ And Andrew goes to tell Jesus.
So you may not know what to say, but if you are there, at the back of the wardrobe, as someone who has glimpsed Narnia, heaven or the hope of heaven, you really will want to say to people, ‘Come and see – come and see the one who is the doorway between earth and heaven, the one on whom the angels ascend and descend’.