Saturday, 31 March 2018

Happily ever after?



I wrote to Mike to let him know what I was thinking of saying: that the resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate happy ending. This is the fairy tale on which all fairy tales are based. Jesus is the knight who turns the scullery maid into a princess, who rescues the princess shut up in a tower, who wakes her with a kiss. And Jesus is the princess who saves the prince, enchanted by a wicked witch, from their life as a beast or a bear or a frog. And here is a story in which they do all ultimately live ‘happily ever after’. And it is a story that is based on a historical fact – the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

It is a great idea, nicked in my case from Tim Keller who, I believe, stole it from CS Lewis.

But Mike pointed out to me that Mark 16 doesn’t end with the ‘happily ever after’. It ends with some serious confused, scared and silent women.

It is a very odd ending, and the reason that we ended there is because most people think that Mark ended his gospel with these words: 
“So they [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”.
 It is very human.

They come to the grave because they want to anoint Jesus' body with the burial spices. They didn’t have time to do that on Friday evening or on Saturday, because it was the Sabbath. And they are trying to work out how they will move the stone. Maybe they are hoping that some people will be around.

But when they get there, they find:
·         the stone has been rolled away
·         there is literally no body in the tomb
·         and a man dressed in white tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead.

Do they believe?
Do they leap up and down with joy?
Do they begin to work out the implications of what it means to say that Jesus has risen from the dead?
Of course not. ‘Terror and amazement had seized them’ (16.8)

We know the story. They didn’t.
For them this is weird. This is off the scale weird.
And one can imagine them at first walking away from the tomb. They start slow and they then get quicker. They’re not going to see the disciples. They are going anywhere. They just need to get away from that place, to get to normality. And the walk breaks into a run. And as they run, people call out to them: ‘What’s the matter?’ Do they tell them, ‘Jesus has risen from the dead’? Of course not. They say nothing.

And then, maybe, then they stop. They stop to get their breath back. They begin to think ..
Maybe that is the moment when, as Matthew tells us, Jesus appears to them (Matthew 28.9). 
And only after that, do they then go to the disciples.

Mark does not give us a happily ever after ending.

And I think that the reason for that is because when he sat down to write his gospel, about 30 or so years after Jesus rose from the dead, he was probably a member of the church in Rome. And that church was facing terrifying persecution.

Nero had decided to blame the Christians for the devastating fire that broke out in Rome in AD64.
Tacitus, the historian writes, ‘First then the confessed members of the sect (of Christians) were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.’

So when Mark writes his gospel, he is emphasizing the fact that to follow Jesus is not about a life of constant success or happiness. It is not about having one great spiritual experience after another. Instead he is saying that if you follow Jesus, you need to be prepared to walk the way of the cross, your own via dolorosa, and that there will be times when you are seriously amazed, confused, terrified and out of your depth.

But if Mark’s ending warns of difficulties to come, and if it is not happily ever after then, there are still hints that in the end it will be happily ever after:

1.      It is ‘the first day of the week’ (Mark 16.2): the day of creation, the day of the beginning – and the resurrection of Jesus is the day of the new creation, of the new beginning. It is a new dawn, not just of a new day, but of a new epoch in the divine history of time.
This is the story which means that Christians, whatever they are experiencing today, can always live with hope. The past has gone and the new has come. Today it may feel like Good Friday, but Easter Sunday, a new beginning, has come and it is coming.

2.      The stone has gone, the tomb is empty, and Jesus is alive. It is a simple message, with earth shaking consequences. It means that, whatever the appearances, however hard it is, however desperate the situation, however savage and evil the opposition, truth conquers lies, hope conquers despair, courage conquers fear and the politics of love triumph over the politics of violence. Satan, sin and death do not have the final word. Love and life do win. Jesus Christ conquers all.

3.      The women have been told that if they go to Galilee, they will meet Jesus.
And if we are prepared to put aside time to listen to his word, to hear his word and to obey his word, we will meet him. We may meet him in those completely unpredictable, extraordinary moments, those touches of grace, when heaven brushes earth, and he is there, he is so close that we can reach out and touch him.
It happens – even here! Someone wrote to me last week to say how last week’s service, and I quote “reawakened my knowledge of the power of prayer given by the Holy Spirit and this gift from God”.
But if we do not meet Jesus in such ways, and yet we have listened to him and been obedient, we do not need to despair. We live in hope, in a certain hope, that we will one day meet him – in our Galilee. Maybe here, but certainly there.

And that is when there will be ‘happily ever after’

Alleluia, Christ is risen!


Saturday, 10 March 2018

A sermon on John 3.16




John 3.16 is probably the most famous verse in the Bible.  

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have eternal life”.

If you only ever learn one verse by heart from the Bible, then apart from the Lord’s Prayer, this is that verse

Billy Graham, whose funeral was a week ago, and who was one of the most influential Christian evangelists and preachers of the C20th (he even preached here in Moscow in Soviet as well as post-Soviet times) used to quote John 3.16 when asked to do a sound check before speaking. He said that even if the sound operator was too busy to listen to what he had to say during the actual event, if he heard John 3.16 then he will have heard the gospel: the good news about Jesus.

For God
There are a few people who would claim to be out and out atheists, and a few more who would claim to be agnostics, but most people are aware that there is something or someone that is beyond themselves, that cannot be seen, heard or touched, but that is bigger than them.
That is why things like Star Wars and the idea of the Force that is out there touches something deep in here.
It is why, as someone put it, there is no such think as an atheist in a rubber dinghy in a storm in the middle of the Pacific

And it all begins with God.
Creation begins with God - ‘In the beginning, God ..’  (Gen 1.1);
Revelation begins with God - ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ (John 1.1)
Salvation begins with God - 'For God so loved ..' (John 3.16)

so loved
We have devalued the word ‘love’. I recently read an article by a Member of Parliament in the UK saying that the Church of England should forget about all the faith stuff, because that divided people, and simply preach a message of love and peace.
But when people say that, and quite a few do, they haven’t really thought through what they mean by ‘love’. The deepest it goes is that they think that we should tolerate each other and be nice to each other. It is a good message, and an important message, I guess, but what orthodox biblical Christianity has to preach is so much richer.

Biblical love is so much more.
It is about delight in the other
– seeing the other as created in the image of the divine, with the potential to become like the divine, and delighting in them.
Zephaniah 3.17 says, “The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you but will rejoice over you with singing.”
One thinks of a mother holding her baby in her arms and singing over her child.

And it is about desire for the other
– a deep heart desire to be united, in the right way, with the other. It is a longing for union. Not just that they can get on and live their life while we live our life, but that we can be part of them, just as they are part of us, and that if we are without them, then we are not whole. And so, Jesus, for instance, speaks of how like a mother hen he would gather his children under his wings (Luke 13.31-35)

And it is about blessing the other
– that is not about simply wishing them well but seeking the absolute best for them. It is blessing them so that they can become the person who God made them to be.
It is why God blesses us with his law – to show us the sort of life that is good and true and perfect.
It is why God blesses us with his discipline – to draw us back to himself, to show us that if we pursue the things of this world we are not pursuing the absolute best for us.
It is why God blesses us by giving us himself.

For God so loved .. At the very heart of God there is not anger, not rejection but this rich deep love: a love that delights in us, that desires us and that would bless us.

the world
And it is not just about love for you or me, or even the church.
God created this world of matter, and he loves it.
At the very beginning, after creation, he looks at the world and he saw that ‘it was very good’.
And the reason that he acted to save us was not simply because he delights in us, but because in some mysterious way the destiny of humanity is tied in with the destiny of this planet and, dare I say, even of this universe. And the day that will see the final public revelation, the making known, of the sons and daughters of God will be the day that this creation is set from what the bible calls ‘its bondage’ to decay and death.

that he gave his only son
If we truly delight in the other, desire union – fellowship - friendship with the other, and seek blessing for the other, then we will give. We will give sacrificially. We will even be prepared to give the most precious thing that we have for the sake of the other.

And God gave his only Son for us, the Son who was absolutely one with him and part of himself and without whom he could not be Father; the Son who he had delighted in, and who delighted in him, from before the beginning of time.

The story is told that Martin Luther was reading to Mrs Luther the account of how God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. And Mrs Luther interrupted, ‘God would never ask that of a person; God would never ask them to sacrifice their child for him’.

But actually parents do, in some sort of way, sacrifice their children.
We love them, we cherish them, we grow them to give them away, to let them go.
You see the consequences when a parent refuses to let go of their child and tries to cling on to them.
That is why one of the very traditional rituals in a wedding is when a father, or someone from the family, ‘gives away’ their daughter. And as someone who has stood at the front and watched this happen on many occasions, I can see how bitter sweet that is for the parents. There are tears of joy at weddings, but there are also tears of pain as you emotionally give away, let go of your child.
And what of parents, for instance, who give away their children to go and fight for their country – knowing that they might suffer and die, knowing that they are potentially giving them up to death?  

As parents we don’t really have the choice of letting our children go.
But Father God loved us and the world so much that he chose to give his only Son.
And he knew that his son would choose to take onto himself our sin and the sin of the world, that his son would suffer and die. There was no question about what would happen.
And yes, there would ultimately be joy, but he knew that in sending his Son he was allowing into his heart the wrenching pain of separation and overwhelming grief, a pain and grief that would be with him for eternity.

I can’t really explain it, and I’m using words – probably foolish words - to try and describe a reality that is far beyond the reach of words.
But what John 3.16 tells us is that the love of God, and the love of God for you, is unimaginable. We will need all of eternity simply to begin to understand the love that God has for us in giving up his only son.

that whoever
This is really simple.
‘Whoever’ potentially includes everybody. It includes everybody who currently lives on this planet who has had a birth mother!
It includes atheists and agnostics; Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs; Methodists and Roman Catholics and Orthodox and free Church and Evangelicals and Pentecostals. It includes Anglicans! It is for people who have been coming to church for many years. It is for people who have only just started coming along
It even includes you.
This is an invitation that is open to everyone

believes in him
That is, who believes in Jesus, who puts their trust in him.

It speaks of the moment when we put our trust in him and are saved.     

Jesus, in John 3.14, has reminded Nicodemus of an event that happened when the people of Israel were wandering through the wilderness. God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and yet they grumbled against God. They said, ‘You only brought us out into the desert to kill us – oh, and by the way, we hate the food you have given us to eat’. They had stopped trusting in God.
And so God sends – and it is God who sends – the plague of serpents. There are snakes everywhere: in their tents, in their rucksacks, in their shoes. Whoever is bitten by one of these snakes will die. There was no medicine, no antidote, no treatment.
And the people cry out to God, and they ask him to have mercy. They realise that they have turned from God, that they are perishing and they repent. So God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and to put it on a pole, and whoever turns and looks at the snake is saved.

That is all that they need to do.
I can imagine some saying, ‘But that is stupid. That can’t do anything. I’m not going humiliate myself in that way.’
But others said, ‘God says that if we look at the serpent on the pole we will live. I’ve got nothing else to depend on. I’m going to trust him and do it’.

Listen, says Jesus to Nicodemus. Just as Moses lifted the serpent on the pole and the people were saved by looking at it, so I am going to be lifted up – and whoever believes in me, whoever puts their trust in me, will be saved, and will have eternal life.

But ‘believes in him’ or ‘trusts in him’ speaks also of an ongoing relationship.

In verses 19-21, Jesus speaks of how he is the light who has come into the world, and that if we believe in him as the eternal Son of God, if we listen to his words and daily put our trust in him, then we will be people who come to the light and allow the light of God to shine in our lives.

‘Philosopher Nicholas Beale and scientist John Polkinghorne use the following story to illustrate the nature of biblical faith:
A philosopher, a scientist, and a simple man—none of whom could swim—were trapped in a cove with sheer cliff faces. They split up, but the tide kept coming in. Rescuers lowered a rope with a safety harness. The philosopher said, "Ah, this looks like a rope, but I might be mistaken—it could be wishful thinking or an illusion." So he didn't attach himself, and he was drowned. The scientist said, "Ah, this is an 11 mm polyester rope with a breaking strain of 2800 kg. It conforms to the MR 10-81 standard," and then proceeded to give an exhaustive, and entirely correct, analysis of the rope's physical and chemical properties. But he didn't attach himself, and he was drowned. The simple man said, "Ah, I'm not sure if it's a rope or a python tail, but it's my only chance, so I'm grabbing it and holding on with my whole life." He was saved.

should not perish
This is the bit that people find difficult. It is hard.
It means that without Jesus we are without God.        

We’ve chosen to cut ourselves off from the source of life, of truth.
It is, if you forgive me for twisting an illustration adapted from current news stories, a bit like a country choosing itself to cut off the pipeline that brings the oil that it needs into the country. For a long time, there doesn’t seem to be a problem because it is living on reserves. But there will come a day when the reserves run out.
And although we’ve cut ourselves off from God, there are sufficient reserves of the goodness and blessing of God in this creation for us to carry on as if nothing has changed. But there will come a day when the reserve runs out. And we will perish.

Without God we are building a wall around ourselves. We’re cutting ourselves off from light and life. And it is not only our physical bodies that will die. Our souls are shrinking and shrivelling up. JK Rowling’s description of Voldemort when his soul has become an eternal whimpering foetus-like baby discarded under a railway station seat is one of the most chilling metaphors of what we are becoming without God.

but have eternal life
God loves us, and he does not want that to be our destiny.
He does not want anyone to perish.
Instead he delights in us and desires for us to come into communion with him, to know him; and he longs to bless us, so that we begin to live as we were made to live. Because that is life.
Eternal life in the bible begins when a person turns to Jesus in trust, when they look to him, when they receive him, invite him to come and be their friend, even to come right deep within their lives and to shape what they desire and how they think.
That is when the connection is made, that is when the pipeline is turned on.
And this life is so rich that not even physical death can destroy it.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have eternal life”.

So, my dear friends, learn that verse, reflect on the verse.
But of even more importance, please I beg you to receive the gift.


When I was a vicar in inner-city London, in Holloway, we ran a mission. We invited an evangelist called Andy Economides to speak to different groups that we already ran. One of those was a Wednesday afternoon service, mainly for people who were older. Frank used to come to those services. In fact, he had come to St Mary Magdalene for most of his life, and he was in his late 80s. But as Andy spoke, I don’t know what it was, but something just clicked. He heard the message. He heard that it wasn’t church going that would save him, it wasn’t receiving communion that would save him, it wasn’t even being good – and don’t get me wrong, Frank was a good man – that would save him. He heard that what he needed to do was to look to Jesus and put his trust in him. Trust him that he was the Son of God; trust him that he had died for him; trust him enough to live for him. And for the first time, Frank asked Jesus into his life.

I hate it when that happens. I’d been vicar of St Mary Magdalene for 10 years. I’d been preaching that same message for 10 years, and Frank had been there for 10 years. And nothing happened. And then someone else comes along, says the same thing as me, and Frank hears and is converted!

But the reason that Frank sticks so clearly in my mind is that 3 days later I received a phone call from Avril his daughter telling me that Frank had died in his sleep. Talk about leaving it to the last minute! And at his funeral we were able with great thanksgiving and with great confidence to say that Frank had gone to be with the Lord Jesus? Why? Because he had heard about Jesus, he had looked at Jesus, and he had believed Jesus. He had received God’s gift of eternal life.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

What is Anglicanism?


The Anglican Church has about 85 million members in 39 Provinces across 165 countries. The average Anglican, as the current Archbishop of Canterbury often says, is not someone from the UK, but a 30-year-old woman in Africa who is earning under $1 a day.

It is a family of Churches, a fellowship or communion of Churches, which grew out of the Church of England, with shared saints, linked histories, theology, worship and a shared relationship to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

So what is Anglicanism? What does it mean to be an Anglican?

BEING PART OF THE ONE CATHOLIC CHURCH

There is a continuity with the past
  • A maintenance of the three-fold order of bishops, priests and deacons. An unbroken link through time and space with the apostles, and a very early ordering of the Church.
  • Confession of the historic creeds: Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian
  • Celebration of the sacraments: and particularly Baptism and Holy Communion
  • Use of liturgy, rites and prayers which reach back to the very beginning of the Christian period
  • Buildings: some Church buildings in England are about 1400 years old
  • Saints: both the saints of the Church, and also national saints – St Alban, Venerable Bede, St Hilda – and more local saints often only remembered in church names: eg. St Botolph, St Wulfstan
But what about the break with Rome?

The conflict between the Pope and the King

The break with Rome was a rejection of Papal authority on English soil. It was not a rejection of the faith of the Catholic church or of the saints of the Catholic Church. It was the culmination of a long conflict between papal jurisdiction and royal jurisdiction
1170: Conflict between Henry II and Church over who had authority over clergy who committed crimes led to the murder of Thomas a Becket
1353: Statute of Praemunire declared that the King’s subjects could not be tried ‘out of the realm’ or appeal to a court ‘out of the realm’
1393: A statute stated that the Pope had caused the laws of the realm ‘to be defeated and avoided at his will, in perpetual destruction of the sovereignty of the King’
So when Henry VIII wants his divorce, and the Pope is politically unable to give him a divorce, Henry decides to take all authority into his own hands
1532: Act in Restraint of Appeals:
‘This realm of England is an empire .. governed by one supreme head and king .. instituted and furnished by the goodness and sufferance of Almighty God, with plenary whole and entire power, pre-eminence, authority, prerogative and jurisdiction to render and yield all justice and final determination to all manner of folk in all causes’. 
1534: the Act of Supremacy declared that the king was ‘the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England’.
‘We thought that the clergy of our realm had been our subjects wholly. But now we have well perceived that they be half our subjects, yea and scarce our subjects. For all the prelates at their consecration make an oath to the pope clean contrary to the oath they make to us, so that they seem his subjects and not ours’.
1534: Henry determines to appoint the Bishops

Again, this was nothing new. Usually episcopal appointments had been a question of negotiation between the papacy and the crown, but the crown took upon itself the right to appoint.
1173, Henry II writes to the canons of Winchester Cathedral, ‘I order you to hold a free election, but nevertheless, I forbid you to elect anyone except Richard my clerk, the archdeacon of Poitiers’ 
1351: Statute of Provisors, repealed in 1390, forbade the pope to ‘provide’ a candidate to any appointment
The situation has little changed, although power passed from the Crown to Parliament and the Prime Minister. However, in July 2007, the Prime Minister of the day, Gordon Brown stated that he was giving up his right to choose a particular person for the post of a bishop from the two names given to him by the Crown Appointments Commission. Instead he would simply accept a single name that was given to him.

BEING PART OF A LOCAL/NATIONAL CHURCH

The Church of England for all people
  1. Conviction that the Church was for all people. Anybody who was not a member was potentially guilty of treason. Penalties ranged from execution, imprisonment and fines.
Whitgift (Archbishop 1583-1604), applied significant pressure to Puritans. Many were deprived, some imprisoned and a few executed.
Archbishop Laud was even more aggressive in his persecution of Puritans. In 1630, Alexander Leighton, who wrote Zion’s Pleas against Prelacy, was fined £10000, imprisoned for life, but first whipped, had his nose slit, was branded on face by SS (sower of sedition) and had his ears cut off.  
  1. Conviction that worship should be in the common tongue. In 1544 some prayers, including the litany, were permitted in the common language. In 1549 the first fully English prayer book was published.
  1. Conviction that the national/regional church has the authority to introduce ‘traditions’, ‘ceremonies and rites’, provided that these innovations do not contravene God’s Word and are introduced to build up God’s people.
Article XXXIV.
It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men's manners, so that nothing be ordained against God's Word.
Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.
Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, Ceremonies or Rites of the Church ordained only by man's authority, so that all things be done to edifying.
The [state] Church in England.
In 1662 with the restoration of the monarchy after the commonwealth, and the accession of Charles II, over 1700 puritan ministers in the Church of England were deprived, mainly because they could not accept the need for episcopal ordination.

However, the Toleration act of 1689 recognised that there could not only be one Church in England, and gave legal recognition to Protestant groups outside the Church of England. Persecutions of puritans continued, but gradually lessened.

(Roman Catholics were not given equal civic rights until 1829, with passing of Roman Catholic Relief act)

Today in the Church of England:
The Queen is head of State and supreme governor of the Church. For the time being the State still plays a role in the appointment of bishops (through representatives on the Crown Appointments commission), some bishops sit in the House of Lords, there are prayers before the beginning of parliamentary sessions, and some civic events are marked by church services.

BEING PART OF A REFORMED CHURCH

The Church of England has been shaped by the convictions rediscovered at the Reformation, expressed in the 42 Articles of Religion (1553) reduced to 39  in 1571, the homilies of 1547 and 1571, and in the Prayer book of 1662 (preceded by the Prayer books of 1549, 1552, 1559)

A look at three convictions
1. The bible
“Article VI. Of the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation. Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation”
Archbishop Cranmer was convinced that if the people are allowed to read the Bible then it would change their lives.
  • from 1540 an open bible in the common language was placed in each church
  • the Church of England lectionary: “In no other church anywhere is the bible read in public worship so regularly, with such order, and at such length, as in the Anglican fellowship of Churches.” Stephen Neil.
The Psalms were read each month, the Old Testament once a year and the New Testament three times a year (this pattern has been modified in more recent lectionaries).

2. Justification by faith
 “Article XI. Of the justification of Man. We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings”
 3On Holy Communion:
“Article XXVIII. Of the Lord's Supper.
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ's death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.
Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.
The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.
The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.”
Anglican teaching on Holy Communion
a) Emphasis on the once and for all time all sufficient sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.
b) Conviction that the receiving of the bread and wine is a spiritual receiving of Christ – clarified in the words used at the distribution of communion in the 1662 prayer book:
This was a combination of the words in the 1549 prayer book: ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for you preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life’, and the more (Zwinglian) words used in the 1552 prayer book: ‘Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving’. In the 1559 and 1662 prayer books, the two sets of words were combined.
c) Linking of consecration and reception into a single act
d) Rejection of transubstantiation, and removal of language of ‘accident’ and ‘substance’ when speaking of presence of Christ in communion
e) Denial that the presence of Christ is a local presence

It was for these teachings, and their rejection of the doctrines of purgatory and indulgences that Archbishop Cranmer, and Bishops Latimer and Ridley were burnt at the stake (1555).

How far would the reformers go?
There was a constant battle over vestments (the surplice) and the need for the episcopacy.
Many Reformers wanted the Church of England to go much further than it did, but Queen Elizabeth I, needing to hold her kingdom together after the reformation of Edward VI's reign and counter reformation of Mary's reign, tried to draw the competing factions together in the 1559 prayer book.
“By 1593 the Church of England had shown plainly that it would not walk in the ways either of Geneva or of Rome. This is the origin of the famous Via Media, the middle way, of the Church of England…Anglicanism is a very positive form of Christian belief; it affirms that it teaches the whole of Catholic faith, free from the distortions, the exaggerations, the over-definitions both of the Protestant left wing and of the right wing of Tridentine Catholicism. Its challenge can be summed up in the phrases, ‘Show us anything clearly set forth in Holy Scripture that we do not teach, and we will teach it; show us anything in our teaching and practice that is plainly contrary to Holy Scripture, and we will abandon it.” (Stephen Neill, Anglicanism p. 119)
During the Commonwealth period (1649-1660), under Oliver Cromwell, with the defeat of the monarchy and the ascendency of the Puritans, episcopacy was abolished and the prayer book was declared illegal.

However, with the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the bishops, prayer book (of 1559) and vestments were reinstated. In 1662 the prayer book was revised, introducing a few 'catholic' elements (for example, the blessing of the water at baptism), but in principal holding fast to the theology expressed in the 1559 prayer book.

Declarations of assent
Up to 1865 in England, any ordained minister was required to state,
‘I assent to the 39 articles and to the Book of Common Prayer and the ordering of Bishops, priests and deacons. I believe the doctrine of the Church of England as therein set forth to be agreeable to the Word of God’.
A new formula was introduced in 1865 with the wording:
I A B do solemnly make the following declaration:
I assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion...
I believe the doctrine of the United Church of England and Ireland, as therein set forth, to be agreeable to the Word of God...
Since 1975, Church of England ministers state
“The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. In the declaration you are about to make, will you affirm your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making Him known to those in your care?
Declaration of Assent
I, A B, do so affirm, and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness; and in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon.”

BEING PART OF A MISSIONARY CHURCH

An overseas mission that grew initially with chaplains going to serve the communities who lived overseas as part of the colonial expansion. Initially they focussed on the English-speaking communities, but in time began to reach out to the local populations.

Formation of missionary societies: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (1701) and the Church Missionary Society (1799)

The Church of England, as a rule, never sought to proselytise where other national Christian churches already existed.

In the last 40 years there has been a movement within the Church of England from a maintenance model of ministry to a mission model of ministry. There is a recognition that the people in England need to hear the gospel.

 

BEING PART OF A GLOBAL CHURCH: THE ANGLICAN COMMUNION (‘FELLOWSHIP’)

Today there are Anglican communities in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, West Indies, throughout the African continent, India, Japan, Korea, South America.

There is a presence in Jerusalem, the Middle East, the far East. There are also Anglican chaplaincies in Europe

The Anglican communion is a family of Churches – with inter-connecting histories, shared saints, theology, worship and a shared relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop of Canterbury is 'primus inter pares' (first among equals) but has no jurisdiction over other Provinces. The Archbishop of Canterbury can only invite bishops to gather together for Lambeth conferences.

At the Lambeth conference in 1920, people accepted the Lambeth Quadrilateral as the theological basis of Anglican unity

Lambeth Quadrilateral        
  • Acceptance of Holy Scripture as containing all things necessary for salvation’
  • Nicene creed as the sufficient statement of the faith
  • Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion as instituted by Christ himself
  • The Historic episcopate locally adapted to the needs of various regions and peoples
There are major tensions within the Anglican communion today, particularly given that some Provinces in the Anglican communion (not the Church of England) bless gay marriage, and this is seen by many as a rejection of the authority of Scripture.

BEING PART OF A FAITHFUL AND GENEROUS CHURCH

The Church, after the turmoil of the reformation, the counter-reformation of Mary’s reign and the civil war, seeks to be as generous as possible. It sought to avoid the excesses of medieval Catholicism and of the extreme puritans.

Some significant Anglican theologians:
John Jewel (1522-1571). Apologia Ecclesia Anglicana. He takes his stand on scripture and the primitive church of the first six centuries. His accusation is that the Popes are the innovators and that there is no evidence in early church history for the supremacy of the Pope, or some of the later innovations.

Richard Hooker (1554-1600). Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. He discusses the Order of the Church and argues for the freedom for regional churches within the fellowship of the one Church. The basis of his argument is the Word of God, found in Scripture but also in the established order/laws and traditions.
His main opposition is the Puritan extreme. He accepts what is given as good, provided it is not forbidden in scripture, and if it builds up people in their faith. For instance, church music is helpful because it can move the emotions. We need to trust the sovereignty of God who works through time. He defends episcopacy, because this has been the pattern of church government from the beginning, and although it is not commanded in scripture, there is nothing in scripture which proscribes episcopacy as practised in the Church of England.

Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626). He was a strong defender of episcopacy, but he writes, “Even if our order be admitted to be of divine authority it does not follow that without it there can be no salvation, or that without it a church cannot stand. Only a blind man could fail to see churches standing without it. Only a man of iron could deny that salvation is to be found within them”.
He is most well known for his Preces Privatae, his personal prayers and devotions

Cambridge Platonists (Period between 1630-1670): Convinced of compatibility between reason and faith. Benjamin Whichcote, ‘God is the most knowable of any thing in the world’ (Patrides, 1969, p.58).
S Neil, ‘They loved the constitution of the Church, and the liturgy, and could well live under them; but they did not think it unlawful to live under another form’. They became known as Latitudinarians, and they are the forerunners of the low church, and then broad church traditions. They focussed on pluralism, diversity of opinion and diffusion of clerical power.

A CLASSIC UNDERSTANDING OF THE THREE MAIN TRADITIONS

Anglo-Catholics – emphasis on the visible church, sacraments and apostolic succession. Find their roots in the tradition of Laud (who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 and was executed in 1645) with his emphasis on the continuity between the Church of England and the ancient Church.  Reshaped and given new impetus by the Oxford Movement in the 1830’s (John Henry Newman, 1802-1890)

Evangelicals – emphasis on the authority of Scripture, preaching, justification by faith and personal conversion. Find roots in reformers and puritans, but leaders like Charles Simeon (1759-1836) were also influenced by John Wesley (1703-1791) and the Methodist movement. The evangelical movement did make some significant political difference, the most well known examples of which were the anti-slavery work of William Wilberforce, and the working condition reforms introduced by Lord Shaftsbury, both members of the evangelical 'Clapham sect'.

Liberals – emphasis on faithfulness to reason. 'Reason' is, of course, also important for those who wish to be faithful to tradition and scripture. It all depends on the assumptions that we make at the beginning, and the focus of the liberal tradition is the humanity of Jesus, and his moral commandments as presented in the gospels.  There have been recent times, in the name of reason, when the divinity of Christ, his resurrection and the eternal have been denied. They have a commitment to justice, to inclusion and to social and political action to promote God’s Kingdom.

THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND TODAY

There are many encouraging signs in the Church of England today.
Yes, we do live in a society that is increasingly materialist, atheist and which is opposed to any form of institutionalised religion. We face significant new moral issues raised by the remarkable developments in the fields of artificial intelligence and genetics. We are divided on major issues such as human sexuality, how we respond to people of other faiths and prayers for the dead. Church attendance is continuing to fall, although it does seem that the decline is being halted, and in some areas there is now growth.
But as Christian believers take their faith more seriously, so new churches are being planted and new Christian communities formed. The numbers of people offering for ministry are increasing. People are meeting with God, and as they encounter God, some of the old party labels are becoming less significant. Evangelicals are discovering the power of the Eucharist. Those who consider themselves more catholic are running Alpha courses and bible studies. In many communities, Christian believers from different churches and traditions are working together on projects to run food banks, football clubs, town or street pastors, projects that offer support to the homeless, unemployed or those in debt.

And specifically, as members of the Church of England we are united by:
  • a common legacy which has at its heart the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but which has been shaped by our own national history, culture and language.
  • a faith as expressed in the historic creeds
  • our buildings and particularly our cathedrals
  • our willingness to listen to scripture, and to recognise its authority, even if we disagree as to how to interpret it.
  • our baptism (and our desire to live our baptism)
  • our shared experience of receiving communion according to the rites of either the Book of Common Prayer or of Common Worship.
  • our sense that a historic episcopacy means that there is some sort of connection with Christ and his people through time and space in our confirmations and ordinations.
  • the fact that our ministers make oaths of allegiance and obedience to their bishop
  • And for many there is the common experience of (at the least) praying morning prayer with its daily bible readings
Love ‘delights in the truth’, and for the sake of the truth ‘it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1 Cor 13.6-7). While my neighbour is prepared to make the official declarations, to say the creeds, to read the scriptures, to receive Baptism and Holy Communion and the laying on of hands at confirmation and ordination, and to make their declarations of canonical obedience to their bishops, then – for the sake of Christ, for the sake of love and the truth, for the sake of the gospel, and for the sake of peace – our obligation is to believe them, to see them as a brother or sister in Christ and to live with, learn with, at times to challenge, and serve with them as members of One Church.

For further Reading
SC Neill, Anglicanism
Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities
https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/church-england-glance/history-church-england

Monday, 26 February 2018

Praying the Jesus Prayer. Some notes.


What is the Jesus Prayer?
A very simple repetitive prayer, which helps us to focus, to centre the mind on Jesus Christ in routine things of life. Nothing magic about the words. At its heart is nothing less than the invocation of Jesus’ name.

Several versions
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me/us
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, mercy on us and all the world
Lord Jesus have mercy

The Jesus prayer in the Bible
Matthew 9:27 (two blind men) “Have mercy on us, Son of David”
Matthew 15:22 Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession” – note how she asks for mercy on her and then prays for her daughter. Why? Because she loves her daughter
Matthew 20:30 Two blind men:  “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us”
Mark 10:47 Bartimaeus: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (cf Luke 18:39)
Luke 18:13 Tax collector: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
 
It is a monologia or monologic prayer.
eg Abba Apollo: ‘As man, I have sinned; as God, do you forgive.’
St Diodochus of Photike (C5th) is the first to write about this Jesus-centred spirituality’.

How do we pray the prayer?
Throw ourselves on mercy of God – doesn’t depend on how we pray the prayer. If we say that God had mercy on me because I prayed the prayer correctly, then we are trusting in how we prayed the prayer and not in God who has given us mercy.

a)         Free use.
Praying the prayer as we walk, at night when we can't sleep, doing exercises etc!
Way of a Pilgrim.
Way to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess 5.17)

b)         More formal use
Prayer said more quickly in Gk tradition, and slower in Russian tradition. Let words flow ‘like a small murmuring stream’ (Starets Partheny of Kiev (1790-1855)
Sitting upright or standing. Tolleshunt Knights (Archimandtire Sophrony Sakharov, 1896-1993)
Caution: Do not practice the prayer for more than 15 minutes, especially if you connect it with your breathing, unless you have a spiritual director, father, mother etc.

Four ways of praying this prayer.

1. For a specific thing: The blind man seeking sight.

2. As a meditation:
Lord – salvation/assurance (this is the prayer of a believer - 1 Corinthians 12:3), surrender
Jesus – the name of Jesus. The name given by his parents. The importance of names: Hallowed be thy name. Jesus teaches them to pray in his name (Jn 16.23-24). Peter speaks of the name of Jesus (Ac 4.10,12). Paul: at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow (Philippians 2.10)
Find it very hard to focus on this word: Imagine that I am blind man calling out to Jesus. Dynamic presence of Jesus: to call upon a person by name is to render that person dynamically present.
Christ – ties in with Old Testament, the promised one, the ruler of God’s world. He came to save us and deliver us.
Son of God – inseparable from the Trinity; shows us divinity. Shows us to whom we are calling and what we are called to become.
Have mercy on me – Of course that can be for anything: for help in trouble, for someone in need, for a Godly sorrow, for true repentance, for a deeper love. It is a cry which affirms that God’s loving kindness and compassion are greater than my brokenness and guilt. Eleios – mercy. Elaion – olive oil. Bad etymology, good theology. Not dark and somber, but full of light.
A sinner – but this is the main reason we cry for mercy - because with the publican I am a broken, inadequate, weak, mortal sinner. I am unable to love. I am under the wrath of God

‘They asked the Abbot Macarius, saying, ‘How ought we to pray?’ and the old man said, “There is no need of much speaking in prayer, but often stretch out thy hands and say, ‘Lord, as Thou wilt and as Thou knowest, have mercy upon me.’ But if there is war in thy soul, add, ‘help me’. And because He knoweth what we have need of, He showeth us His mercy.” [Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p157]

3. As the bedrock of all prayer:
When we pray this prayer we can go no deeper – although we might use technique (prayer beads, breathing), it is about the abandonment of self and technique.
Spike Milligan, on falling over, ‘Thank God the ground broke my fall’
This is the prayer that rests on Jesus. We can drop no further. 
The prayer which underlies all my prayers.

4. As a way of going deeper into God
The prayer as a way of life, so that it – the calling on Jesus - becomes closer to me than my breathing. 
It begins with focusing on the words but ends in up encountering God beyond words.
Story told by Cure d’Ars of old man who spent hours in church. ‘I’m not asking God for anything .. I just sit and look at God, and God sits and looks at me.’

‘There came to the abbot Joseph the abbot Lot, and said to him, “Father, according to my strength I keep a modest rule of prayer and fasting and meditation and quiet, and according to my strength I purge my imagination: what more must I do?” The old man, rising, held up his hands against the sky, and his fingers became like ten torches of fire, and he said, “If thou wilt, thou shalt be made wholly a flame.” [Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p158]

St Diodochus of Photike (C5th): ‘The intellect requires of us imperatively some task that will satisfy its need for activity. For the complete fulfilment of its purpose we should give it nothing but the prayer Lord Jesus. Let the intellect continually concentrate on these words within its inner shrine with such intensity that it is not turned aside to any mental images’

 ‘When using the prayer, we seek to still our imagination. Instead of calling to mind incidents from the life of Christ, we dwell upon his total and immediate presence. When visual images occur, we set them aside. We do not engage in chains of reasoning or a string of resolutions. We think solely of Jesus himself’ Kallistos Ware

St Romuald of Camaldoli (d 1027), ‘If your mind wanders, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more.’

John Climacus, ‘Contain your mind within the words of prayer’

Hesychasm: Stillness, rest, quiet, silence. ‘Silence in the religious sense signifies God-awareness. What matters in silence is not our external situation but our inner disposition. It is a matter, not of keeping our mouth shut, but of opening our heart to God.’ Kallistos Ware. [Rowan Williams speaks of the silence of expectation – like birds before the rising dawn]. It is not isolation but relationship.

Helps to prayer:
1.         Soul friend, spiritual director/father/mother
2.         Prayer rope. [YouTube: The Jesus prayer with Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward]  Holy Spirit and silence. St Isaac the Syrian (C7th): ‘I do not want to count milestones, but to enter the bridal chamber’. Gives us something physical to do.
3.         Praying with each breath.

Is it self-centered?
There is a real danger that all of this is incredibly individualistic – but actually the person who has become like Christ is set free to love – they weep when others weep and they rejoice when others rejoice. Your burden becomes their burden.  
1. Woman who prays, ‘Have mercy on me, my daughter is sick’
2. When we pray the Jesus prayer, we forget self and concentrate on him.
3.  St Seraphim of Sarov: ‘Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find salvation’


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)