Category Archives: Sermons
Several of my friends were sharing this cartoon on Facebook in the last few days. I think it encapsulates how we might regard the Ascension in the Methodist Church – or not regard it, as the case may be. We have an ‘Ascension Deficit Disorder.’
There are all sorts of reasons for this. I think we find the Ascension to be one of the more embarrassing miracles. Not only is it strange, it seems to offend against what we know of modern cosmology, and we find it hard to see the point of it. The healing miracles may also seem to go against science as we know it, but at least they seem to have a point – and a loving, compassionate one at that.
But the Ascension? What on earth is the use of it? Maybe we see it as some kind of divine blast-off, and we can’t get our heads around it. To us, heaven isn’t ‘up there’ in a literal sense, and so we chide those ancient people for their simplistic beliefs. For us, the Ascension is not like a 1960s episode of Thunderbirds, and Jesus’ final meetings with the disciples aren’t like Thunderbird 2 on the launchpad, ready to fly to rescue some people in terrible distress somewhere. In the past, when I have preached on the Ascension, I have explained it as what I call a ‘miracle of accommodation’, namely that Jesus had to be taken up into heaven in the sight of the disciples as the only way they would understand he was returning to heaven, even though heaven wasn’t literally up in the sky.
But Tom Wright has pointed out that the ancient Jews didn’t see the distinction between earth and heaven that way. In a sermon he preached six years ago, he said:
The early Christians, like their Jewish contemporaries, saw heaven and earth as the overlapping and interlocking spheres of God’s good creation, with the point being that heaven is the control room from which earth is run. To say that Jesus is now in heaven is to say three things. First, that he is present with his people everywhere, no longer confined to one space-time location within earth, but certainly not absent. Second, that he is now the managing director of this strange show called ‘earth’, though like many incoming chief executives he has quite a lot to do to sort it out and turn it around. Third, that he will one day bring heaven and earth together as one, becoming therefore personally present to us once more within God’s new creation.
One way and another, then, after the Resurrection, where God vindicated his Son and began his new creation, now in the Ascension we have the confirmation that Jesus is the rightful Lord of the universe. He is the Messiah, the King. And therefore when he gathers his disciples for final instructions, he does so as the one about to take his seat on the throne of creation. We should read his words as a king’s orders to his subjects. Certainly what Jesus says here can be read as decrees and requirements.
Firstly, he calls his disciples witnesses. He interprets the Old Testament Scriptures to them all here in the manner he did to Cleopas and his companion on the Emmaus Road, by showing how they pointed to his suffering, death and resurrection. But these are not just events in recent history: they have a meaning, importance and implications for all who hear. Thus Jesus goes on to say:
and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.48 You are witnesses of these things. (Verses 47-48)
The point is this: you have seen all this, disciples. You saw me betrayed and killed. You have met me since I rose from the dead. You know what these events mean about me. I am the true King. The world has been shown to be wrong about me. There is a question now of people showing true allegiance to me, since the Father has vindicated me and is about to enthrone me. You have seen this. You are witnesses. You have a responsibility to share what you have witnessed with others.
What kind of witnesses are we to the King? This last week, Debbie has received a letter, summoning her to jury service next month at the coroner’s court. It is clear that the jury would be sitting not on a trial but on an inquest. She is therefore likely to hear two kinds of witnesses. One is the expert witness, such as a doctor who describes the cause of death from a medical point of view. Another is the ordinary witness, who may have seen something crucial that happened.
Christian witness includes both kinds of witnesses. Not all of us are expert witnesses, and we do not all have to be. However, we are all ordinary witnesses, because we are witnesses to what he has done for us through those saving events of his death and resurrection.
You could use a different metaphor from ‘witness’, especially if you want to connect this specifically to Jesus’ enthronement as King. You could use the image Paul deploys in 2 Corinthians 5 of ‘ambassadors for Christ.’ We have a privilege and responsibility to speak on behalf of the King.
And it is significant that Jesus mentions ‘repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ as part of the message. To be a witness to the king or an ambassador for him is to be entrusted with a message that calls all creation to align themselves with Jesus. That means turning away from the kingdom to which they are currently committed – the kingdom of darkness – and turning to Christ instead. Witnesses to his death and resurrection can do no less. There is a legitimate conversation to be had about how we do this, but that it is part of the task cannot be in doubt.
Secondly, Jesus the King calls his disciples to waiting. He has just given them a tremendous briefing. They must be on a knife edge. Perhaps they cannot wait to get going, out of excitement. But although he promises to equip them for the task, he tells them to wait:
I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (Verse 49)
Jesus is going to put his reign into action through the disciples at Pentecost. His personal presence will be replaced by his personal power in the Holy Spirit. They will start living as the kingdom community, doing kingdom things, just like Jesus himself had done in his ministry before his death. They must be champing at the bit.
But they have to wait for that transfer from the presence of Jesus to the power of Jesus, that change of personnel from Jesus to his Spirit. Therefore the king’s order to them is, ‘wait.’
Is that so unreasonable? Our Queen has ‘ladies in waiting’ – women who wait for whenever she issues a command. The timing of the command, as well as its content, is up to Her Majesty.
Now you may say that there is an important difference between the first disciples and us. While they might have had to have waited for the Holy Spirit, we do not, because the Spirit has now been given, and receipt of the Spirit is a sign of Christian conversion. If you say that, you would be right in that particular case. The Spirit has indeed been given, and we do not have to wait like that.
However, there are many instances where Jesus in his kingly authority calls us to wait. We are not to act without his command. We are not to presume upon him and go charging off. He calls us to wait until he gives the order.
And to wait effectively means learning to be attentive. Just as the ladies in waiting have to be attentive to the Queen, so we need to learn the spiritual disciplines of attentiveness as we wait for instructions from heaven, earth’s control room. That means listening. I am far too good in prayer in rattling through the things I want to talk about and then stopping as if that were the end of prayer. But it isn’t. Not if I am to wait upon my Lord. Silence, solitude and retreat are all disciplines we need to practise if we are to be those who wait upon the King of kings.
Thirdly and finally, disciples of earth’s true king are committed to worshipping. Worship is the natural reaction to knowing that God has enthroned Jesus. Thus the reading ends:
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. (Verses 50-53)
Kingship and worship go together. The Greek word most commonly translated ‘worship’ in the New Testament is proskuneo, which literally means, ‘to move towards and kiss.’ But what kind of kiss? It is the kiss of homage. The image is the ancient one of kissing a monarch as a sign of allegiance. It is still practised in a symbolic way today when new Prime Ministers and new Anglican bishops are appointed.
Worship, then, is emphatically not in the first instance about ‘singing what I like’. I am not saying that worship should not be enjoyable, but I am saying that the focus of worship is not about whether it scratches my back, it is not about whether I am ‘fed’ (because Christians should learn to feed themselves, anyway), it is not about whether it was ‘my favourite preacher’, and so on. All those criteria and more are me-centred. Worship is meant to be God-centred. We are paying homage to God. It is about a sense of awe, wonder and devotion to him, not about spiritual entertainment. We are disciples, not dilettantes.
On Bank Holiday Monday, we decided to visit Windsor. After sitting outside in the sun eating our packed lunch, we joined the queue for the castle. Having got in after an hour’s wait, we went around and eventually decided to visit the State Apartments. While following the prescribed route around them, Becky and I suddenly heard Debbie let out a gasp, and she called us urgently to where she and Mark were. They had just seen a car arrive, and the Queen get out of it with one of the corgis. They then saw the Queen walk the corgi to her official door into her living quarters. Unfortunately, Becky and I didn’t get over to them in time, and we missed out. Becky was upset. However much I tried to say to her that the Queen is just a normal human being like the rest of us, she knew she had missed out on something special. Her mum and brother had a sense of awe that they had seen the Sovereign.
And that is what we need to long for in worship: an awe at having encountered the Sovereign of all creation. Awe that does not concentrate on the amazing experience that we had, but awe that expresses our wonder at this Second Person of the Trinity, who now reigns until every enemy will have been put under his feet. To this King who now reigns we owe our loyalty.
It is something we have a chance to affirm formally at the climax of our service this morning. For we come to the sacrament of Holy Communion. Whatever else communion is, when we respond and take the bread and wine, that action is symbolic of our oath of allegiance to him who has ascended to reign over all. In the Roman Empire, the ‘sacramentum’ was the oath of allegiance taken by a soldier to the emperor. This morning, let us take our sacramentum, too.
If I’m honest, I wish I could have spent more time preparing this. I think I could have distilled my thoughts better. However, this is the best I could do in the time available. I hope it helps you and others.
So, it’s Church Anniversary today – a time when it’s natural to look back with thankfulness to God for his faithfulness in the past. As the hymn says,
We’ll praise him for all that is past
And trust him for all that’s to come.
But sometimes looking back degenerates from gratitude to complaint. In one of my previous churches, one woman had a regular refrain in her conversation. It was about the time when the Sunday School had a hundred children, and it was run by a particular man who must have been a strong personality. It felt like it was my fault when the only children present at Junior Church were my own two children.
So there is a healthy looking back and an unhealthy looking back. What we often forget to do on occasions like this is look forward. It may be that in times of declining and aging church congregations we find it easier to opt for the warm duvet of nostalgia, because we think that if we look forward we might not see a church.
But the hymn doesn’t just say, ‘We’ll praise him for all that is past’, it also says, ‘And trust him for all that’s to come.’ How can we look forward with hope for the church? I believe we can do that by feasting our eyes on God’s vision for the future of the church, and letting that future destination affect the way we are church today.
Our reading from Revelation does just that. In the picture language of that book, its vision of the Holy City gives us images of God’s perfected new society in his new creation. This is where we are going! So let us use this future vision to check where we are now and look at the direction we are taking.
Just to give you extra value I am going to pick out six elements of the Holy City, the new Jerusalem. This doesn’t mean a double-length sermon, but I hope it does mean we get a rounded picture of the community of which we are a part, and of which we shall be a part.
Firstly, let us look at the gates.
It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites (21:12).
Angels and the twelve tribes. Let’s take the angels first. When do we first hear of angels at the gates? Is it not when the first humans are expelled from Eden, and an angelic guard is set at the gate of the garden to prevent further access? But what about here? The great story of God and humankind that begins in a garden ends in this city, and angels are at the gates again. However, this time it cannot be to keep all comers out. They might be there to keep certain people out, but they are definitely not on guard duty to keep all and sundry out of the new Jerusalem. For the power of sin which led to that initial expulsion of the first humans from Eden has now been reversed. The curse has been neutralised. Now there is only blessing for those who will walk with the Son of God. Where sin broke relationships between humans and God, between humans and each other, between humans and creation and even within humans themselves, all that is now healed and restored. Eden is back, but with such a large community it can no longer be a mere garden. Now it is a city.
And note that word ‘community’. It is no accident that ‘the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites’ are on the twelve gates. For what God has done in his project of salvation is to take fractured relationships and build a new, healed community by his grace. Salvation has never been just something that individuals receive. It has always been about reconciliation, not only with God but also with each other. We express this by working on our relationships, to make sure we are at one with each other. We speak the truth in love. We build each other up. We forgive one another. We share The Peace as a sign of this.
Secondly, we have the foundations.
And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (21:14)
The twelve apostles then locate this redeemed community specifically around Jesus. They are ‘the twelve apostles of the Lamb’ – the Lamb of God, Jesus. It is not just any group: it is a body of people united as disciples of Jesus. He it is who brought God’s work with Israel to a climax. The twelve apostles witness to this, since a requirement of apostleship at the beginning of the church was to be a witness to the Resurrection.
So here is what our community life is centred on: the birth, life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. The church is the gathering that sits forgiven and forgiving at the Cross. We rejoice in new hope at the empty tomb. By the power of the Holy Spirit we seek to imitate Jesus together.
Now if that’s true, what does it do to our priorities? Much as we need to discuss property and finance, the heart of our conversation and action together should surely be centred on Jesus himself. We find it easier to talk about the weather or our aches and pains. Some of us don’t read our Bibles from one Sunday to another, and along with other signs of lukewarm behaviour it’s no wonder our churches are not magnetic to those interested in spiritual questions.
There can be all sorts of reasons why this is so. But perhaps it therefore becomes us to have a conversation about why we struggle to make Jesus explicitly central to our church life – let alone the rest of life. There is no foundation other than the New Testament Gospel of Jesus Christ for the church. From her beginning through eternity it is the basis of her existence. We need to be renewed in that Gospel.
Thirdly, we look at the walls. We have a vivid description of the holy city’s walls being made out of previous stones and metals (21:18-21). No expense has been spared in making the new Jerusalem a place of dazzling beauty.
God is intent on making his new community beautiful. He expects the church to become stunningly attractive, if at the same time also perhaps terrifyingly so. At the cost of the Cross, he has not only seen to it that people are forgiven through his Son’s offering, but also the transforming power is there to make people new. The Easter events lead not only to forgiveness, but also to holiness. There is a perfection in the measurements of the holy city, too, and I think this is all imagery that points us to the holiness of the church.
It is worth remembering how people responded to the early church. There was something wonderfully attractive about those first disciples, but there was also something quite unnerving about the white heat of holiness they displayed. Do you think today’s world sees anything like that in us? The Christian life is not simply one of gaining a ticket to heaven through the forgiveness of sins and then waiting until we die for our arrival at heaven’s station. It is about being the new community, as a sign of God’s future to the world, and therefore calling others to hear the challenge to follow Jesus. As such, our lifestyle is as important as our message.
Fourthly, there is a temple – or is there?
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. (21:22)
The temple is the place of worship. Specifically to Jewish religion, it was the location for the major festivals and the authorised place for sacrifices. The devout became attached to the temple. They admired its architecture, as did Jesus’ own disciples.
But we can become too attached to a building, even one that has been set aside for holy purposes. Jesus knew that. His new community does not finally gather in a bricks and mortar location, it gathers around ‘the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb’. In the holy city we foreswear our idolatry of buildings and concentrate our worship precisely where it belongs: on the God who made and redeemed us. In the new Jerusalem there will be no rivals for our affections: there will only be the Lord our God and his Son. The Holy Spirit will direct our eyes to them.
So what else goes from our worship, along with our buildings? All the other idols of our age and any age. Money, status, possessions, fame, celebrity and power: we cannot chase any of these in the new creation, because only God will be the object of our devotion. It therefore seems sensible to start getting our focus right now. What do we set our hearts on more than God? Is it time to reorder our priorities as we prepare for eternity?
Fifthly, a city needs light. And just as there is no temple but the Lord God and the Lamb, so the Almighty is the light and the Lamb is the lamp (21:23). There will be no darkness (21:25), not even moral darkness (21:27). Rather, the nations will walk by God’s light (21:24) and the glory of the nations will be brought into the city (21:24, 26).
What does this mean? For one thing, it means that we shall live by God’s light – Jesus is, after all, the light of the world. Nothing else will compete to steer our lives. Fear will not speak to us, nor will hatred or greed. Only the pure light of God in Christ will guide our steps. And so again, that is something where we can get used to that at least in part now. How committed are we to wanting God to show us our path in life? We do not stand still if we want that. Just as it is easier to steer a moving vehicle than a stationary one, so we get moving by following Jesus in whatever ways we know how, while at the same time asking him to shed his light upon our ways.
The light of God in Christ also means something else. If the glory of the nations are brought into a city that basks in that light, then this says something positive about all that is good and worthy in human culture. The new Jerusalem is a place to celebrate the fact that we are made in God’s image and likeness, and so we can produce things of great beauty, value and wonder. I think it is no accident that over the centuries, the Christian church has sponsored and promoted the best of the arts, for example. And while much of that has historically been used in the explicit service of worship, I am sure this does not mean that heaven will be littered with the worst in kitsch religious trinkets. What it does mean is that the best of human achievement will be laid at the feet of Christ in adoration. Do we bring our best to him now? Do we deploy our gifts and talents to praise his name?
Sixthly and finally, there is a river in the city. I don’t know about you, but I like that. When we were living in Chelmsford, Debbie and I sometimes liked to go to a sandwich bar in town, buy lunch and sit outside on tables by the River Chelmer. Even if the river seemed dirty, somehow it was still refreshing. We did something similar in Guildford a couple of months ago.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, to discover in the new Jerusalem a river whose functions are life and healing. It flows from – guess where? – ‘the throne of God and the Lamb’ (those two again), through the centre of the city (22:1-2). The ‘tree of life’ (echoes of Eden again) grows on both banks ‘and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’ (22:2). All accursed things will be gone (22:3).
There were rivers in Eden and there is a river in Ezekiel 47 that runs from the temple out to the land, and healing springs up on both banks. This is similar. Christians have sometimes imagined Ezekiel’s river to be a picture of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God brings healing to the world. But surely the people of God are sent out from the temple with the Spirit of God. We are sent by God with a healing message to the world, the healing that only Jesus Christ can bring. If we have been at the throne or the temple, the natural thing to do afterwards is to go into the world with the good news of healing in Jesus Christ. It is good news for individuals, and it is good news for whole societies. One day, that mission will be complete. But until that time, we anticipate that glorious fulfilment of all God’s purposes by going out from our worship gatherings proclaiming with our words and demonstrating with our deeds and our lives that God in Christ has the cure for a broken and wounded world.
Perhaps the best act of devotion we could offer in gratitude for God’s faithfulness to his church here would be a renewed commitment to showing his healing love outside our fellowship in the wider world.
It’s not often I would identify myself with Iain Duncan Smith MP. I certainly can’t square the recent benefit changes with his alleged support for social justice and his country house home. He went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, but the only places I have visited at Sandhurst have been Marks and Spencer and Tesco.
But I do share the odd trait with him. The politically aware among you may remember how there was a huge contrast in personality between himself as Leader of the Opposition and Tony Blair, as the charismatic Prime Minister. At the 2002 Conservative Party conference, Duncan Smith tried to make a virtue of the difference. “Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man,” he said. Unfortunately for him, when he got to the House of Commons again, Labour MPs would put their fingers across their lips and say, “Shush” every time he got up to speak.
His quietness was derided, and that has sometimes been my experience in the church as well: a quiet leader can be derided. Either people want a larger than life minister or you find you have consistently made the same point in meetings, only for people at future meetings of the same committee to say that something has not been addressed.
Why tell you this? Do I want your sympathy? No. Well, not on this occasion. Our passage has a lot to do with the contrasts between wisdom and folly. The first image of wisdom we have here is that wisdom is quiet, but folly is loud:
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
than the shouts of a ruler of fools.
18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
but one sinner destroys much good. (9:17-18)
There is no shouting, or aggression, let alone violence, that goes with true wisdom. It is quiet and gentle. It does not arrest you, it does not grab you warmly by the throat and shake you. It is the still, small voice of God.
I have told before the famous story about the former Liverpool football manager Bob Paisley, who spoke very quietly at press conferences. One day, a journalist asked him why he spoke so quietly. “I speak quietly, so that you will listen,” he replied.
Might it be that the words of wisdom are spoken quietly by God and by God’s people in order that we might listen? It would be nice and easy if wisdom were served up on a plate for us, brought to us by waiter service. But it isn’t. We have to go in search of it, tuning our ears in to its quiet sounds that frequently are drowned by the noise of sin in our world.
That means God isn’t just going to splash his wisdom everywhere. Yes, it is available to all, but it will only be found by those who have a heart to search for it. We must want his wisdom badly – badly enough to set out on a quest for it, determined not only to find it but to put it into practice when we finally discover it.
Now clearly some of this means we need to develop a dogged determination in our devotional lives to hear the voice of God. Yes, it does mean a regular commitment to a style of Bible reflection that is suitable to us. It does mean spending time in prayer. It does mean commitment to a small group as well as to Sunday worship, and so on. All these things I’ve mentioned before, and will continue to emphasise. It’s why I remain concerned at the findings of our worship questionnaire, where a number of people identified Sunday services as the only times they seriously engaged with the Bible. We just can’t do that and get away with it if wisdom is quiet. It’s no good giving up quickly on spiritual disciplines when we don’t immediately have a stunning experience of God. Like a lover, he woos us, but he also plays hard to get, because he wants us to be serious about him.
And that leads into the second image of wisdom the Preacher gives us: wisdom is rare, but folly is common. To take some representative verses:
As dead flies give perfume a bad smell,
so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.
2 The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
but the heart of the fool to the left.
3 Even as fools walk along the road,
they lack sense
and show everyone how stupid they are. (10:1-3)
A small bit of foolishness creates a big stink in society, says the Preacher, and fools parade their foolishness for all to see. It’s not hard to see that, is it? Some people seek the spotlight, but have very little of substance to offer society. Plenty of people who gain the dubious status of celebrity could fall into this category.
Or we have people who become famous and are thrust into the limelight, simply because of their abilities in one particular field, and who are then labelled ‘rôle models’ by tastemakers and cultural commentators for some questionable reason. Footballers who end up biting members of the opposition might be included here. It’s hard to know who is the more foolish: those who deem footballers to be rôle models, or fame-hungry sporting stars who lack the wherewithal to set an example.
When we live in a society like this, feeling outnumbered by a catwalk parade of idiocy, what are we to do? We bemoan the triumph of style over substance. We despair of how a little trivia becomes a major thing. Having spied the front page of a certain red-top tabloid this last week leading on the story of a boy band splitting up, because presumably they have a strong idea that is important to their readers, I share that same sense of exasperation.
But it’s never acceptable for the Christian to give up in the face of a folly-ridden society. It remains our missionary call to keep speaking the wisdom of God, whatever the odds. After all, according to the New Testament, Christ is the wisdom of God, and how can we not speak about him? How can we not see all the more clearly our society’s need of Christ when we witness the epidemic of foolishness around us, and are struggling not to become infected ourselves?
Yet it feels difficult to hang on and to remain consistently faithful when so much of what surrounds us makes it feel like we are paradoxically drowning in an ocean of shallowness. To that end, I find something that Graham Kendrick said over thirty years ago. He said,
“When the odds get too big, I just remember that Jesus plus me equals an invincible minority.”
Yes, we may be up against the odds, and things may not always be going our way, but as the First Letter of John puts it,
‘Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.’
Ultimate victory belongs to Jesus. God raised him from the dead and made him king of the universe. Whatever direction things are going at present, that direction is only the short term. We know the long term outcome for all creation. We are on the victory side when we witness faithfully to Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God.
The third and final picture of wisdom I want to share with you is this: wisdom is gracious, folly is wicked.
That sounds harsh on foolishness, doesn’t it? When someone is a fool, we either laugh at their idiocy or sympathise with their ignorance. But wisdom and folly are moral qualities in Scripture. Wisdom is not merely about intellect, and so in a week when the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins has topped a magazine poll as the world’s top thinker of the last twelve months, the Christian may accept the man’s intellectual abilities, but would never call him wise. After all, as one American theologian I know put it on Facebook this week,
his views on religion … are simplistic, ill-informed, and simply wrong.
Here is the part of the reading that makes this point:
Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious,
but fools are consumed by their own lips.
13 At the beginning their words are folly;
at the end they are wicked madness –
14 and fools multiply words. (10:12-14)
We are equally not exercising wisdom in the church when we use our knowledge or cleverness to put someone else down. We are using wisdom – the wisdom which ultimately is Jesus Christ himself – when grace is our theme and our motive. We show wisdom when we speak with grace about grace.
It is surprising how often grace is excluded from Christian conversation. After the recent convictions of Mick and Mairead Philpott for the killing of six of their children, I saw within a short time on the Internet Christians putting messages that they longed for them to burn in Hell. Where is the grace there? It is as if what we really think goes something like this: we are good, other people are bad, and we will get to Heaven because we are good. Nothing could be further from the Gospel, yet this lie goes round in church circles.
None of us would be here but for grace. The people we look down on in the church family are recipients of the same grace. The people in our society who commit terrible, yes, wicked acts, are in need of that grace. That grace is centred on the Cross of Christ. And the Cross is a divine foolishness that outranks human wisdom, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 1. It is indeed the wisdom of God.
We have said already that wisdom is a quiet voice and a minority voice. Well, nowhere more than here, where wisdom is characterised by grace is it a quiet, minority voice, even sometimes in the church. It is time to come back to the Cross, if we have strayed away. It is time to remember our experience of being humbled by love at the Cross. And when we recall our own humbling at the feet of divine love, then would it not be normal for us to begin extending that same grace to others within the church and beyond?
In a few minutes, we shall come to the climax of this service in the central act of gathered Christian worship, when we take Holy Communion together. Let our eating of the bread and our drinking of the wine this evening remind us of the grace and love God poured out for us in his Son.
Along with that, can we also recall that every Sunday is an Easter Day? Every week, the fact that the Christian church moved the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday reminds us of the history-changing events we mark on Easter Sunday. God calls us back to that empty tomb constantly. For there we see the grace of God every bit as much as we do at the Cross itself. At the empty tomb, God by his grace and power transforms hope-drained people into hope-filled people.
This is the source of our life, our life in Christ. I pray that it will feed us, and – through us – feed others, too.
In the time from Margaret Thatcher’s recent death to her funeral last Wednesday, I have been involved in three funerals. We hosted a funeral at the church, prior to a burial at Brookwood Cemetery, because the chapel there was in too distressing a state for the family. We have had the funeral of a church member’s mother. I am preparing for another funeral tomorrow, too: I had taken an elderly lady’s funeral a year ago, but when her daughter died younger than most, her children asked for ‘the minister who conducted Granny’s funeral.’
None of these three people was famous, and certainly not like Mrs Thatcher. Yet they all share one thing in common with her, as we all do. Death comes to us all, as today’s reading in Ecclesiastes reminds us:
All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. (Verse 2a)
The same destiny overtakes all. (Verse 3)
“Lying here, she is one of us,” said the Bishop of London in his address, and while the trappings of a ceremonial funeral seemed designed to separate the grocer’s daughter of Grantham from mere mortals, death remains the great fact and great equaliser.
When you are younger, you may live as if you are immortal. As you grow older, reality dawns on you. It may come in the death of a friend or loved one; it may come as you notice signs of decay in your own body. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes invites us to ask this question: how do we live well in the certain knowledge of death? I offer two main thoughts this morning.
Firstly, live life well. This seems to be the Preacher’s main advice in the passage:
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun – all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labour under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (Verses 7-10)
You could easily interpret this along the lines of, ‘This life is all there is, so you might as well make the most of it.’ Even if you substitute the word ‘temporary’ for the word ‘meaningless’ as I’ve suggested in previous weeks, you would still be talking about ‘this temporary life’ and ‘all your temporary days’. It might boil down to little more than, ‘God has only given you this life, so get on with it.’
But that’s rather worrying, isn’t it? And this is one of those Old Testament texts where the Christian has to bring in the New Testament for a fuller understanding. Left on its own, this passage is not fully Christian. It needs filling out with New Testament revelation. Ecclesiastes reminds us of the finality of death and that we need to live life well before dying, rather than just wait for death. However, the story of Jesus Christ reworks this into a fuller picture.
What is that fuller picture? Simply put, it is one word: resurrection. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is far bigger than a promise of eternal life for all his followers (although I do not deny that!). It is the promise of a new world to come, a new creation where God makes all things new, just as he made the body of his Son new after crucifixion. It is the foretaste of new heavens and a new earth.
In other words, we are not dealing with some ethereal life, floating on clouds, playing harps. If harp playing is a requirement, then only one person in this congregation has an eternal future! Rather: it is a physical and material future, seen in the way the Risen Lord cooked and ate fish.
Therefore, to eat and drink, to love and to work well, as the Preacher suggests, are appropriate preparations for the life of the age to come. When we enjoy God’s good creation with thankfulness, we tune in to the coming age. When we love and when we work hard, despite the struggles they involve due to the presence of sin in this world, we tune into the life to come.
Sometimes we are tempted to think in life that what we are doing is worthless or pointless. ‘Why am I giving myself to this?’ we ask ourselves. We might even ask God the same question. However, that is where one of Paul’s greatest insights into the meaning of the Resurrection comes into play. It’s a verse that some of you know came to be very important to me during an extremely hard season in my life. It’s the final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle’s great chapter on the Resurrection. Just when many of us would expect him to point at the climax of his argument to God’s glorious future, he instead brings us back to this earth with a practical application:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)
Aligning yourself with God’s will ‘is not in vain.’ Death will not destroy it. Somehow it will be taken up in the work of building for God’s kingdom. If God has given you a task to do, there is an eternal purpose to it. If God has given you something to enjoy, then do so with gratitude and generosity, not with greed, for that generosity and gratitude is the grain of the wood in his kingdom.
But what is true is this: one day, the opportunity in this life to build for that kingdom will be gone. We have limited time, and as the Preacher says at the end of the passage, ‘no one knows when their hour will come’ (verse 12). So take the opportunity. Do you have an opening to good or to celebrate God’s gifts? Take it! Remember the slogan from the Robin Williams film from 1989, ‘Dead Poets’ Society’; ‘Carpe Diem’ – seize the day. In the face of death but with the hope ofresurrection, that is what the Christian will do in order to live life well, in a manner that pleases God.
Secondly, prepare for death. On the day of Mrs Thatcher’s funeral, Giles Fraser had an excellent piece in The Guardian entitled, ‘How to bury Margaret Thatcher’. If you saw a title like that by a left-wing clergyman like Fraser in a paper like the Guardian, you would probably expect something vitriolic. Not so. Fraser spoke how when he was on the staff of St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘Operation True Blue’, the plans for Mrs Thatcher’s funeral arrangements, were on the books all the time he was there. We know that Mrs T had made certain requests about her funeral, as indeed many more humble people do. But I am not talking about leaving a list of requests for the service – although I have to say that if you do so, it is helpful to your relatives after you have gone.
No: I am talking about preparing for our deaths in squaring our relationship with God in Christ, and all the consequences of it. Fraser tells of how last Sunday, the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, Mark Oakley, told a story in his sermon about the funerals of Habsburg royalty in Austria:
As the funeral procession approached the closed doors of the Imperial chapel in Vienna, a voice from inside would ask, “Who is it?” The grand chamberlain would read out a long list of grand titles. The voice from the church then replied: “We know him not.” The chamberlain would try again, with a shortened version, and received the same reply. Finally, the chamberlain knocks on the door. Again comes the question, “Who is it?”, and this time, eschewing all pomp and ceremony, he answers: “A sinner in need of God’s mercy.” “Him we know; enter,” comes the reply.
Here is how we prepare for death: as ‘a sinner in need of God’s mercy.’ The Preacher in Ecclesiastes writes here as if there is nothing after death:
Anyone who is among the living has hope – even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!
5 For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even their name is forgotten.
6 Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun. (Verses 4-6)
However, as I’ve already said, the Christian has received further revelation, the revelation of an empty tomb, and we believe in a life to come, preceded by a Last Judgement. We do not intend to present ourselves before God, clutching a eulogy to our lives that exaggerates our good points and airbrushes the bad bits. We are not to be the Pharisee at the temple, telling God how well we have lived for him, but the publican standing at a distance, saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Is that to be morbid and to be miserable? Is that to engage in what I once heard somebody call ‘worm theology’ – ‘O Lord, I am but a worm’?
No. It is to cast ourselves on the grace of God. I’m sure you know the old mnemonic for the word ‘grace’: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. In other words, we are forgiven through Christ’s death on the Cross and made new in his Resurrection.
Or put it this way. Here is a slogan I saw the other day on Facebook:
Grace is the face love wears when it meets imperfection.
We prepare for death by remembering that we are sinners in need of God’s gracious love in Christ. We are, as the late Brennan Manning called himself and all of us, ‘ragamuffins.’ If we come boasting of our good deeds, we shall only be exposed as the hypocrites we are.
There is no room for cover-ups. In his book ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’, Manning tells of being in a group for alcoholics with a man who kept presenting his drinking problem as not too bad. However, the counsellor practised tough love and ruthlessly exposed his lies and deceit, even to the point of having left his daughter in a car on her own during freezing weather while he went on a bender for hours. The daughter developed frostbite and permanently lost her hearing. Only when the man had been brought to honesty about his sins and had put away his egregious attempts to present himself in a good light could redemption come.
It is the same with us before God. If we try to come as good people, decent people, valued pillars of society, God will not be impressed with us. But if we present ourselves as sinners needing forgiveness, and sinners willing to be transformed by the resurrection of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, then just as the imperial chapel was opened to the dead body of Habsburg royalty, so the court of heaven is opened to the deceased pilgrim in Christ.
It’s interesting we come to a passage about justice six days after the death of Margaret Thatcher. Did she uphold the rule of law for the sake of good order in society, or did she use the Police to batter ordinary working people?
I’m not going to express an opinion on that debate. I have my views, and while I tend a certain way about Mrs T, my beliefs can’t be summed up in just a sentence or two.
But we come to the writer of Ecclesiastes, living in a vastly different society from ours, yet asking similar questions about justice and authority to ones that many people ask today. After all, as The Who sang in ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’,
Meet the new boss,
Same as the old boss.
So we’ll look at the questions Qoheleth (‘The Preacher’) raises in this passage. We’ll have to take some of his answers further in order to set them in a New Testament context, but I couldn’t pick just one New Testament passage to complement this one, because there are a few we need to take into account.
Firstly, he advises his readers to keep the law. It’s for a mixture of reasons, though:
Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God. 3 Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases. 4 Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
5 Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm,
and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure.
6 For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter,
though a person may be weighed down by misery. (Verses 2-6)
It all starts off rather well: obey ‘because you took an oath before God.’ Whether this is like an oath in a court of law, or whether it simply indicates that someone on principle has declared before God that they will obey the king, it is something that takes promises to God seriously. Those who make serious promises to God should keep their word. No-one should be frivolous about their vows to the Lord. If we are not going to keep a commitment to him, we should not say that we will.
Now this has an indirect effect on a just society. Justice requires truth-tellers. Justice requires those committed to honesty. Whether you take an oath to God in court or simply make an affirmation because Jesus said ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no’ in the Sermon on the Mount, false testimony leads to injustice.
But at the same time, just promising to obey the king because he wields power as Qoheleth implies in verse 3 is insufficient in itself. It may be a minimal reason for doing right, but on its own it is no more than a pragmatic reason, based on fear. It’s the social cousin of the parents who say to a child, “Because I say so!”
Ultimately, the New Testament has an even stronger reason for commending a general principle of obedience to the authorities. Paul describes it in Romans 13, where he says that the authorities are instituted by God for the purposes of justice. They are both to punish the wrongdoer and reward those who do right. This is seen by Paul as promoting a stable and healthy society.
Now don’t you think it’s quite remarkable that a man of Paul’s experience should say such positive things about the state? He is someone who on more than one occasion suffered at the hands of the judiciary for the wrong reasons. He was arrested under false charges. He was thrown into prison on trumped-up charges. He was not always protected when he was attacked. Yet despite this, he still wrote about the basic need to submit to those in authority.
I am sure that various questions are forming in your minds about this. One would be: how does this black and white language about rewarding the righteous and punishing the wrongdoer relate to Christian belief in forgiveness? Allow me to tell you a story.
During my ministerial training, I celebrated my thirtieth birthday one Sunday. Another student and his wife invited me over to their flat for a wild celebration over … beans on toast. At the end of the evening, they offered to call a cab for me, but I declined. I felt I knew what I was doing as a city boy – and I didn’t want to shell out unnecessary money as a student.
Big mistake. On the way back to the hall of residence where the single ministerial students lived, I was mugged by a young thug. The first thing he did was to smash my glasses, and he then compounded it by hitting me in the eyes.
When I struggled back to the hall, one student phoned up my bank to cancel my plastic money, and another (who was a former solicitor) took me to the police station, and stayed with me into the early hours while I was interviewed and gave a statement.
I am sure the young hooligan was known to the local community, but the police never made an arrest. I was asked at a later date whether I would have given evidence in court, had he been apprehended. I replied, ‘Yes, just so long as I was sure first that I had forgiven him in my heart.’ It is my conviction that we need to forgive for the sake of our hearts, and to uphold justice for the sake of a stable society.
But there is another question Christians will pose about law-keeping, and it’s this. Do we really have to give our loyalty to an unjust government? How do we cope with Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 when obeying a government would put us into conflict with things we know elsewhere are God’s will?
In 1981, while apartheid was still entrenched in South Africa, a black Christian community worker from Soweto, visited London. While he was here, he was interviewed by Simon Jenkins, the editor of a small magazine called Ship Of Fools that is now a large Christian website. During the interview, Jenkins asked him, ‘How do you respond to Paul’s words in Romans 13 about submitting to the governing authorities because they are given by God?’
It is very clear that the South African government is a government which has not been appointed by God, and if God has appointed that government then he must be a very, very unjust God. Personally, I believe that God has nothing to do with the appointment of the apartheid government in South Africa. If I believed that God had appointed that government, then I should not be against apartheid.
Mbeje’s words point, I believe, to the fact that Romans 13 is not the only word in the New Testament about our attitude to authority, just as the call to obey the king in Ecclesiastes 8 is not the only thing the Preacher says about the subject. As well as Romans 13, there is Revelation 13, where Rome is the Beast. They lead us to the second of the two themes in our reading, then, namely the imperfection of justice. In the rest of the chapter, we read about the wicked being praised (verse 10), delayed justice (verse 11), and some occasions where the wicked get what they deserve but others where what they deserve and what the righteous deserve get reversed (verses 12-14). No wonder nobody can make sense of this, he says (verses 16-17).
And this is why I called this sermon ‘Justice and Meaninglessness’ on the sermon series outline. Things don’t always go as they should. We bring up our children on a ‘happy ever after’, people get what they deserve basis, where every story ends with goodness being praised and wrong being punished, but as we grow up we soon discover life doesn’t always cash out like that. For me, I think it was watching an episode of the TV cop show ‘Softly, Softly’ which ended with the police not catching the criminal. I started to ask questions of my parents. How could it be? This was real life, they told me.
And I’d be surprised if there were anyone here today who doesn’t recognise that. Life isn’t fair. The good don’t always win. Bad people get their way. How can this be?
No wonder Qoheleth says in verses 14and 15,
There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. 15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.
Note that word ‘meaningless’ that keeps cropping up in Ecclesiastes. The failure of justice always to win can make life seem meaningless. It just seems like a counsel of despair. The commendation to enjoy life then becomes little more than ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’.
But I take you back to the beginning of this series. On the first Sunday of the series, which we introduced with an all age service, we also had an evening service where I looked at chapter 1 in more depth. I pointed out that the familiar words, ‘Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless’ in Ecclesiastes may better be translated, ‘Breath of breaths, everything is temporary’. If you plug that meaning in here, then actually we have words of hope. The failure of justice to prevail at all times is not meaningless, it is temporary. As Christians, we believe that a new world is coming, ushered in by resurrection and final judgement. The imperfections of justice are not for eternity. Sheep will be separated from goats.
And you know what? This is an Easter theme. Paul in Romans 1 speaks about the Resurrection of Jesus as being God’s vindication of his Son. An injustice was done at the Cross. Throughout the Book of Acts, preachers such as Peter remind their hearers of that. But on Easter morning, God reversed the injustice. The world had said ‘no’ to his Son, but he said ‘yes’. It’s another case where the Easter event is a foretaste of all that is to come in the fullness of God’s kingdom.
Let us remember that the imperfection of justice is temporary. That can spur us on to work for justice with a sense of hope. It is also, then, why the Preacher commends ‘the enjoyment of life’ to his hearers. The Christian can enjoy life, even in the midst of an unjust world. It isn’t a closing of deaf ears to the cries of the suffering. It isn’t a making the most of life before it all disappears. It is instead defiant laughter in the face of evil. Eating and drinking and being glad in the midst of our daily toil is one sign on our part that we believe a new world is coming, and that God has served notice to quit on the forces of darkness.
 Ship Of Fools, issue no. 8, December 1981, p 36.
On the way back in the dark from my welcome service in this circuit at Walton in September 2010, we got to a mini-roundabout in Chobham where I was convinced from one or two sorties already that you turned right. Unfortunately, we should have turned left – and then right at the following roundabout.
The result was – that with one or two other mistakes I made – we ended up stuck up a narrow cul-de-sac, surrounded by flooding, needing a difficult reversing manoeuvre to get out. Let’s just say that Debbie is far better at reversing than me, and with children crying that they would never get home again, she took the wheel and offered me some – er – ‘words of encouragement’.
‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ ask the men dressed in lightning. ‘He is not here; he has risen!’ (Verses 5b-6a)
It isn’t because the women have gone to the wrong tomb; they knew which tomb Jesus was buried in. And if they had gone to the wrong tomb, then seven weeks later when the apostles preached the Resurrection at Pentecost, the enemies of the Jesus movement would have gone to the right tomb and produced a decomposing body.
No: the women’s problem is stated in the next words of the men:
‘Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words. (Verses 6b-8)
The first quality we need, then, as disciples of the Risen Jesus, is that of remembering. My failure to remember a route got our family in a pickle that dark night two and a half years ago. The women didn’t remember the promises of Jesus.
Now in one respect it’s unreasonable to be hard on them. When Jesus predicted his resurrection, he was prophesying something their existing beliefs didn’t expect. Many Jews expected the righteous to be resurrected at the end of time, according to Daniel 12, but not in the middle of history. And the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection at all. So the beliefs the women already had made it difficult for them to take in what Jesus had said.
Yet that is what disciples of Jesus are meant to do – remember his words above the beliefs and values of our culture. His words often clash with the beliefs we have inherited. We need to strain to hear them, but they are important, and he doesn’t always shout them.
And most of all, we need to remember that he is risen. Because it changes everything in life and death, and in how we live as a result.
The second quality that disciples of the risen Jesus need is listening. Sometimes when we’re in a supermarket, Debbie will slip into the shopping a celebrity magazine, or at very least one of those similar magazines where readers tell their gory real-life stories for money. I smile politely, but inside I’m thinking that these publications are the spawn of Satan. I have no problem with light reading; I have every difficulty with trashy, celebrity gossip.
When the women get back from the tomb and speak to the Eleven and all the others, the men dismiss their evidence, ‘because their words seemed to them like nonsense’ (verse 11). ‘Idle tales’, some translations say. Rather what I think of the celebrity mags.
I wonder why the men reacted this way. Was it because their beliefs, too, prevented them from believing in the resurrection? Or was it because the testimony came from women? This was a society where women were not allowed to give evidence in a court of law. And so, at a tangent, if you wanted to make up the Easter story then, you wouldn’t have chosen women as your central witnesses.
But the Resurrection means we have to listen to unlikely sources, not least because Jesus himself chose unlikely followers. Would you have picked the same disciples as he did? Probably not. Yet these people – some of whom were on the margins of society (the women most likely were) – are those who have the testimony we need to hear.
This Easter, don’t just listen to the words of a preacher like me. Listen to the testimony of a quiet Christian who would not stand at the front like I do. Maybe you are that quiet Christian. You, as much as anyone else, have a story to tell of your encounter with the risen Lord. Do not deny others the joy of hearing your account.
Here’s the third element of being a disciple of the risen Lord. Many years ago, my home circuit ran a day when different people in the circuit could have a stall to advertise Christian resources they found helpful. My Dad took a stall to promote some material for house groups.
A man from another church in the circuit took one look at what Dad had to offer, and sneered at him: ‘We don’t need any of that rubbish.’ The man made it plain that he was beyond the idea of learning more about his faith.
Contrast Peter. His reaction to the women’s story is that he runs to the tomb and investigates for himself (verse 12). He isn’t complacent. He doesn’t belittle the women. He checks it out for himself. The third quality, then, is one of learning.
I’m fond of the story about the elderly grandmother who regularly read her Bible, to the bemusement of her grand-daughter. ‘Granny, why do you still read your Bible?’ asked the little girl.
‘Because I’m studying for my finals,’ said the old lady.
If we believe in something as mind-blowing as the Resurrection, then surely we get the message that there is always more to know and learn. God always has more that is beyond the current horizons of our minds. We do not have to be academic, but we do need a commitment to continual learning about Jesus and our faith as Christians. In fact, we can’t be a true disciple without it. The word ‘disciple’ means ‘learner’. It’s a matter of definition! No learning, no discipleship.
So I want to challenge KMC this Easter Day. To read in our worship questionnaire a few months that a high percentage of us only engage with the Bible during Sunday morning worship tells me that we as a church have a low level of discipleship.
Learning is not all about Bible study, of course, and one of my nastiest critics in a previous church was someone who was diligent in daily Bible reading. Learning about Jesus involves not only studying but also doing – putting into practice what we discern.
The Church Council has decided we need to promote house groups, so come and talk to Chris Lowe or me about that. We can also help you find other modes of Christian learning.
But whatever we do this Easter, let us commit ourselves to learning more about the Jesus who has stretched our horizons, and who continues to do so.
Here is an extended meditation/talk I gave a couple of days ago for Holy Week.
I want to take as a theme this year the sayings of Jesus on the Cross. I shall offer some brief thoughts on each of them, because between them they give us a picture of the Gospel message.
Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do
Who killed Jesus? I worked with a Jewish woman who told me how she grew up facing taunts of ‘Christ killer’. I said that was unfair, as the Romans as well as the Jewish authorities were implicated in the death of Jesus. Here, as Jesus pronounces these amazing words, he has Roman soldiers at his feet.
In showing that both Jews and Gentiles were co-conspirators in the execution of Jesus, the Gospel writers tell us that the whole world is guilty of causing this, the greatest injustice of history.
However, in Jesus offering forgiveness to his tormentors, it equally means that his Good News is open and available to all. All have sinned – no exception – but also, the Gospel is for all – no exception.
There is no-one here who is beyond the forgiving love of God. It doesn’t matter what you are ashamed of, it doesn’t matter what you can’t forgive yourself for, Jesus offers you forgiveness from the Cross.
For there is no-one in the world who is potentially beyond the reach of God’s love in Christ. People we like, and people we despise. People we think are deserving, and people we consider unworthy – because all of us are unworthy, not only those who have done what is socially unacceptable, as opposed to those of us who – in our eyes – are basically good, but have only committed minor foibles. All of us are sinners in the sight of God, all of us are in need of forgiveness, and that forgiveness is open to all of us. He died for our friends and our enemies. Housewife and paedophile, businessman and war criminal, Jesus offers forgiveness.
Is that scandalous? Yes, to some. But this is love. This is mercy. This is grace. And without it we’re all dead.
With this, we remember our humble status, yet our loved status. As the forgiveness of God on Christ lifts us from our knees to our feet, so we also recognise his love for others and treat friend and foe alike with dignity.
Today you will be with me in paradise
In this second saying, we see the grace and mercy of God in Christ exemplified. You remember the story. Jesus is crucified in the middle of two criminals. As in life, so in death, he is in the midst of the world of human sin. And just as in the world, the responses to Jesus are mixed. One is mocking, the other is longing.
Mockery gets you nowhere – a sobering thought for our culture today. But to the plaintive, desperate cry, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the heart of Jesus responds in love: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” The thief knows no Scripture, he hasn’t taken confirmation classes, and he has no chance to avail himself of the sacraments, but the cry for mercy is enough.
But what and where is Paradise? I grew up opposite a park, and within the park was a walled-off rose garden, with a separate door for entry. In a similar way, the biblical scholar Paula Gooder points out that ‘paradise’ is not in the Jewish usage some luxury beach with white sand. Rather, it is a Greek word, derived from a Persian once, referring to an enclosed garden. It therefore does not strictly equate to ‘heaven’, but Gooder suggests an enclosed garden within Heaven. Many Jews believed that after Adam and Eve’s sin, the Garden of Eden had been sealed up from humankind until the end of time, when it would be opened to humanity again. So when Jesus promises paradise now to the penitent thief, he is promising a return to Eden within Heaven, and thus a sign that the kingdom of God is coming. The thief had asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom, and thus Jesus indicates that his kingdom is closer at hand than might have been expected.
So this mercy is more than forgiveness: it is the promise of being part of God’s kingdom, his new creation, his restoration of the universe to the way it was meant to be. It is more than wiping the moral slate clean, it is invitation into the intimate presence of God.
Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother
I guess we all know those people who remarkably think of others in the middle of their own suffering. Jesus was all that and more. Even before the Cross, during Holy Week, he gave words of comfort and hope to his disciples, knowing they were going to face terrible grief. He promised that he was going to prepare a place for them, that he would come back for them and that he was the way to that place.
Now, here he is, hanging on the Cross, and there is Mary his mother. Joseph is certainly dead, otherwise there is no need for him to think, as the eldest child, about arrangements for his mother’s care. But this is especially awful. Surely no parent should have to watch their own child die.
Some of the most heart-rending funerals I have taken over the years have been precisely such deaths. I remember a dear friend who died at the age of 41 from breast cancer. Not only do I recall the grief of her husband and that of her two children who were primary age at the time, also fixed in my mind is the pain of her elderly parents. She died in November. She had already bought and wrapped Christmas presents for her children, gifts she would not see them open. But she planned for them.
Jesus plans for his mother in the midst of suffering for the sins of the world. He matches her up with ‘the disciple [he] loved’ – whom I take to be John.
And how much more moving that he does this, given that during his public ministry he had been ambivalent about biological family. He had said that his true family were those who did the will of God.
Perhaps this points up the theme of the Cross. It exemplifies the fact that what Jesus is doing here, he is doing not for himself but for others. It makes me ask myself how much I am willing to go through suffering for others, and to remain focussed n others while I do so.
Furthermore, perhaps we can take this as indicating how through his death Jesus would create a new family of God, one that gathers around the Cross. That is what makes us God’s family today: nothing less than Christ’s atoning death for us. Nothing else gives use Christian unity within a church or with other churches: only the Cross does that. It is what we need to emphasise time and time again.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Is the hardest of all the words from the Cross? It appears in Matthew and Mark. To draw out some meaning, I want to concentrate on its setting in Mark. I believe these words fit a wider pattern that you see in the second half of Mark’s Gospel, as the shadow of the Cross becomes ever darker.
Three times Jesus predicts the Easter events – in chapters 8, 9 and 10. On each occasion he goes into great length about how he is going to be betrayed, suffer at the hands of the religious leaders and be killed. Then he adds a brief statement that he will rise again. The events of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death are then told in some considerable detail by Mark, but he has only eight verses about the Resurrection.
In other words, we have a pattern that gives great attention to unjust suffering but then just has a small note of hope with the Resurrection. Could the words, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ fit this scheme? I think so, and here is why.
The words are not original to Jesus. They are the opening words of Psalm 22, where David is struggling with unjust suffering. For twenty-one verses he emphasises this. But the final seven – the last quarter of the psalm – look forward with hope. When Jews quoted the first line of a Psalm, they usually had in mind the whole Psalm. It was rather like the way we quote a song title – we have the whole song in mind. So we should take seriously Jesus’ expression of desolation from God, it isn’t simply that he felt abandoned. However, he knows there is hope. There is much darkness, but there is a little light.
This would have made sense for Mark’s first readers, who were almost certainly Christians in Rome suffering under Nero’s persecution. Their pain needed to be taken seriously, and they needed a little glimmer of hope, without it going over the top into a cheap triumphalism.
Can this help us and those we love when we are struggling? I believe it can. When we face pain and agony, when perhaps this also has an effect upon our spiritual lives, we need people alongside us who can take the reality of that dark experience seriously, and not belittle it. Yet we also need a word of hope. Not someone who comes alongside with such a relentless cheerfulness that they are plain annoying, nor someone who is a Job’s comforter, explaining how it is all doubtless caused by our sin. We need the quiet, gentle promise that light is coming. All this is in a suffering Jesus who rose, and who spoke of his own God-forsakenness on the Cross.
This is a poignant, if not ironic, saying, coming as it does in John’s Gospel. Back in chapter 4, John records Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. He promises her that she will never thirst again – he means in a spiritual sense.
Here, though, the One who made that promise is himself thirsty. Crucifixion has dehydrated him. Someone offers him a sponge dipped in sour wine, on a hyssop branch.
The detail of the hyssop branch is unlikely to be accidental, especially for a writer like John, who loves imagery and symbolism. The hyssop was used in the Passover … and John records Jesus’ death as synchronising with the Passover. A branch of the hyssop herb was dipped in the blood of the lamb and daubed on Israelite door posts to indicate to the Angel of Death that he must not inflict his terrible plague of slaughter there. So, for the Christian, hyssop is used to strengthen Jesus as he offers his blood as the Lamb of God, saving his people from death.
Not only that, I wonder whether another meaning might have any significance here? Jews believed the bitter and sweet aroma of the hyssop plant could repel evil spirits. I’m not suggesting, obviously, that such a claim is true, but could it be that we have a symbol here of Jesus’ conquest of evil forces on the Cross? Some New Testament passages speak of the Cross as a victory over the forces of evil, for example: Colossians 2 arguably contains such an image. Forces and spirits that work by fear are conquered by love. Those that work by brute force are defeated by apparent powerlessness.
Certainly, Jesus thirsts. Not only does he thirst physically, he thirsts for righteousness and the victory of redeeming love.
Now if ‘I thirst’ indicates some kind of victory at the Cross, then we might ask whether there are any other signs of triumph at Calvary. I believe there are, and they become apparent in the final two sayings of Jesus as he hung, dying.
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit
Jesus may have been forsaken by God, but in these words from Psalm 31, he expresses a word of trust as he anticipates reunion with his Father. He will be vindicated – we shall see that in the Resurrection. He models for us the trust we may have when we draw near to death. Even Christians sometimes feel fear as death approaches, or even as ageing takes its course. It is said that William Williams, the author of ‘Guide me, O thou great Redeemer’, feared death and was unsure of God’s love for him. The theory goes that this explains the final verse of that hymn:
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of deaths, and Hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Perhaps we sing, with Paulus Gerhardt in ‘O sacred head, sore wounded’,
Be near me Lord when dying,
O show thy Cross to me.
For when we see the Cross and hear Jesus committing his spirit into the Father’s hands, we know we are in a safe place.
A further thought here: Jesus is in control of his own destiny here. He chooses this moment to give up his spirit into the Father’s safe keeping. Others may have thought they were in charge of events, but they weren’t.
More than that, this is not a request on Jesus’ part, it is an announcement. He has decided to do this. Strangely, somehow, he is still running the show. This is another reason to place our trust in him, even at the bleakest of times.
It is finished
Saying that something is finished may not sound like a word of triumph. It’s over. It’s the end. All gone. Nothing left. It might in those terms be what you expect from someone whose life is about to end in an unjust way. It’s all gone pear-shaped. Down the pan. Finito.
But what Jesus says here is far from despairing. It’s a word of victory. ‘Finished’ here more means ‘accomplished’. It’s about the fulfilment of purpose. I have achieved what I set out to do. Strange as it may sound, it is as if Jesus has a sense of satisfaction as he dies. Mission accomplished! He has drunk the cup of suffering. He has absorbed the sins of the world. He has conquered the powers of darkness, taking all they could throw at him and turning it back on them, much like in a judo contest, where you take what your opponent throws at you and you use it against him. The cry from the Cross is a shout of triumph; the cry from Hell is a howl of anguish.
Darkness may cover the land on Good Friday, and the disciples may disperse in despair. But what they do not see at the time is Jesus turning in his report to Heaven, and the Father saying, “Well done!”
There is a saying you may know that originated in black majority churches: ‘It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.’ We can leave Good Friday in doom and gloom, and there is a place for that. Yet even in the bleakness of Jesus’ death, the ear of faith hears words of victory that give hope: it is finished. All is accomplished. The work of the Messiah, the Suffering Servant is done, and in a couple of days God will confirm it. He will pit a great big tick by the work of Christ in the form of the Resurrection.
This Easter, do not be afraid to walk into the darkness. Because we are walking towards the light.
Peter was known as a bit of a lad in the office where I used to work. But one day, his world was turned upside-down. His girlfriend became a Christian. She joined a local evangelical church, and invited him to the Sunday night youth group.
Knowing I was a Christian, he talked to me about the experience on the Monday morning.
“I just don’t get it,” he said. “I thought you Christians were not supposed to be worried about wealth and possessions. But we went to the home of the old boy who ran the group, and he kept going on and on about how much he loved his expensive new three-piece suite. How do you square that with Christianity?”
You can’t, can you?
Peter had a point. And maybe behind it for me is a thought that we as Christians have more of a problem with wealth and materialism than we like to admit.
And so in a week when our time in Ecclesiastes brings us to this trenchant passage about money, I think we need to consider the subject. Is it possible that we are not as distinctive from the world as we might be? Is it even possible that rather than hearing the biblical admonition not to love the world, we are more like spiritual chameleons, adopting the local colour with ease?
Make no mistake: we cannot dismiss this as just some stereotyping of Surrey residents. The statistics support it. Measured by property prices, we live in the wealthiest county in the UK. We have the second highest ratio of multimillionaires, beaten only by the concentration of Premier League footballers in Greater Manchester. I can assure you that my children have noticed it. They ask me why their school friends have multiple foreign holidays every year, while we always stay in the UK. I’m not complaining about being on a stipend, which technically is a living allowance and not a salary – I knew what I was letting myself in for. (Although I confess I’m touched when Mark observes that ministers do one of the most important jobs in the world, so they should be highly paid!) I just want you to know how obvious it is.
And if we do merge in with the local background, then consider this: I think I have told you before that in my first few weeks here, one of my colleagues raised this question: ‘Is the Gospel against Surrey?’ Does the Gospel stand against the values espoused by so many people in this wealthy county?
I would have thought it does. I am aware that there are a number of people in our congregation on very limited, fixed incomes, and if that is you, I promise you I do not have you in mind. I also know that there are people here on considerable incomes, who are also generous. I am privy to some wonderful stories of generosity in this congregation. But generally it is always a danger for Christians that we accommodate to the culture. Partly that may be out of a desire to be accepted, but it is also partly because we find that culture attractive anyway.
So do we need to hear the force of the Preacher’s words in this passage, that wealth is meaningless? Hear chapter 5, verse 10 again:
Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
One of the extremely rich members of a past generation – and I confess I can’t remember whether this was Rothschild or Rockefeller – was once asked, ‘How much money is enough?’ He replied, ‘Always just a little bit more than you already have.’
Furthermore, increased wealth is to some extent an inbuilt factor in Christian conversion. John Wesley noticed the phenomenon called ‘redemption and lift’. Finding Christ led to a reduced spending on bad habits, making for more disposable income. Not only that, imbibing Christian values of hard work led people to earn more money. Put these effects together and conversion helped people financially. Indeed, as Wesley’s own fame increased and he sold more books and pamphlets, he noticed that his own annual income rose from £30 (remember we’re talking about the eighteenth century!) to £120. However, he calculated that throughout those years he only needed £28 on which to live, and therefore he gave away any income he had over that amount.
I shall come a little later to some of the thoughts about how we might handle the financial blessings many of us have, but that was Wesley’s approach.
All around us we find the trappings and the temptations of wealth. I am fast thinking that there is a local catchphrase. I have heard it so often in this village: ‘You should go private.’ Whether we’re talking healthcare or education, there seems to be a local assumption for many: you should go private. More than one person who knows we have a very bright son has told us we should send him to the Royal Grammar School at Guildford. If we’re lucky, they have a second thought along the lines of ‘Oh, I suppose you can’t afford that.’ There can be occasions when there is no alternative but to take the private route, but around Knaphill I find many people who treat that option as an easy default.
All this happens in a world where at Addlestone we host one of the three hundred food banks in this country, where our denomination has contributed to the ecumenical report by the Joint Public Issues Team called ‘Truth and Lies about Poverty’, which forcefully exposes the demonisation of the poor in our society. In the USA, a film has just been released called ‘A Place at the Table’, which documents the fact that 49 million people in that nation including one in four children – don’t know where their next meal is coming from. How appropriate is it for us to drink in Surrey values, especially in the light of this, let alone what is happening elsewhere in the world?
Some people deal with this by downsizing and simplifying their lives. A dear friend of mine quit as a director of his company, and he and his wife moved to a hamlet in the West Country, where they got involved in the local community in various ways. However, that approach isn’t possible for everybody. For some Christians to do that would involve denying the position of responsibility they have been given at work, and their sense of calling to it.
How, then, might Christians respond and live distinctively within a culture that ignores God and worships Mammon instead? I would commend a passage such as 1 Timothy 6 as a great antidote to the perils of caving in to our culture. In the face of people who have wandered from the faith into deep distress due to their love of money (verse 10) he urges ‘godliness with contentment’ (verse 6). He then commands the rich to be generous, while at the same time remembering that God provides us with everything for our enjoyment (verse 17).
So what kind of Christian lifestyle might we pursue if we were content with the basics God gives us? It will look different for each of us – there is no uniform response – so if you are looking for a very simple ‘We should all just tithe’ sermon, I’m sorry. But let me offer the following thoughts.
I said earlier that I am paid a stipend, not a salary, and that the key difference is this: theoretically, a salary is ‘the rate for the job’ (or, perhaps, simply the result of a power struggle in bargaining between employer and employees). A stipend is a living allowance. It is meant to be enough so as not to be in want, and to free me to concentrate on my calling without the need to spend a lot of time elsewhere, supplementing my income. Now while that is a rather idealistic description and the reality can be somewhat harder, let me ask this: what if we as Christians prayerfully determined what would be a reasonable level of income for ourselves (including savings) and gave money away that would otherwise take us above that standard of living?
You could say I am suggesting something that is a variation on Wesley’s approach. You’ll remember I said that he continued to live on £28 a year, whether his income was £30 or £120. His motto was ‘Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.’ Is that an approach that commends itself to us?
I said also this wouldn’t be a simple ‘We should all tithe’ response, but tithing needs a mention. The tithes of the Old Testament were rather more complicated than some people like to make out, and the simplified version that is often preached – ‘Give ten per cent of your income to the church’ – doesn’t do that justice and also puts a disproportionate burden on the poor and lets the rich off lightly. However, back in the late 1970s, the American Christian social activist Ronald Sider suggested a variation that tried to address this problem. He called for Christians to adopt the principle of what he called the ‘graduated tithe’. People started out at a base level of giving a certain percentage of their income – say, the ten per cent. However, as their income increased, not only would their giving increase pro rata, they would also increase the percentage of their income that they gave away to the church and to the poor. Alongside that, he proposed other lifestyle decisions, like only buying a new suit no more frequently than every three years. If you want to read more about his ideas, pick up his book ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.’
Let me commend another practice to you. I believe this won’t be entirely new to some of you. I call it the ‘Bob and Kay Fund.’ Bob and Kay were a couple – both now sadly deceased – who were great friends with my parents. Bob had been an executive in the advertising industry but quit that to be the publicity and appeals director of the Shaftesbury Society. I know of at least one occasion when Bob and Kay were generous to my parents in difficult times. When pressed about it, they said they kept a special fund into which they put money, in additional to their regular giving to their church. They then used that sporadically to meet specific needs they came across. Is that something you could do, perhaps administering it out of a separate bank account?
What about our homes? I have heard it said that many people in this area are ‘asset rich but cash poor.’ Hospitality is one of the sadly unsung spiritual gifts in Scripture. Are there ways in which you could be more hospitable, and not just to your close friends?
Whatever giving you do, I recommend this question: am I doing this as a sign of my desire to build for the kingdom of God, and to play an active part in the kingdom community, that is, the church? Or am I just putting something in that I regard in a similar way to the subs I pay to the golf club, the tennis club or the fitness centre?
A final story: Martin Smith was the lead vocalist of the Christian rock band Delirious? Even if you don’t follow Christian rock, you may well know some of their songs, such as ‘I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.’ They sold huge numbers of CDs – at least, by the standards of the religious scene. Also gaining royalties as the main songwriter, Smith earned a very comfortable living. The band toured the world and occasionally made the pop charts.
It was on a visit to India, though, that Smith had his heart broken by meeting a young girl through an outreach to prostitutes and their children. He realised that these girls witnessed things they should never see, and would almost certainly soon end up in prostitution themselves. As a father himself, this distressed him hugely. He and the band set out to support Christian outreaches to them and their mothers.
But at a later date, he realised that he needed to build his own recording studio. He then had an attack of conscience. Could he really do this when the need in India was so great? The money he planned to spend on the studio would fund ten workers with the Indian poor. What should he do?
He built the recording studio. It was central to his calling to make music to promote Jesus Christ, and therefore he concluded it wasn’t greedy to do so. Hence that’s my last point: in the use of your wealth, consider God’s calling on your life.
How, then, will you and I determine to use our resources in a way that makes our wealth meaningful rather than meaningless?
 Martin Smith, Delirious: My Journey with the Band, a Growing Family, and an Army of Historymakers, p 189.
During my first sabbatical, I went on a creative writing course. The timing was rather iffy – it was a couple of weeks before Debbie was due to give birth to our daughter, our first-born. I was allowed to sit in the seminars with my mobile phone on the desk, switched on. The one occasion it rang was on a morning when I knew Debbie was seeing the midwife, and I rushed out to answer the call. Other participants on the course said I was as white as a sheet – although surely budding writers could have come up with a more original image!
Fortunately, baby Rebekah was too busy inside the womb enjoying Debbie’s cravings for Cadbury’s Crème Eggs to consider a minor inconvenience like birth. And so I got through the whole week, learning from writers who specialised in a wide range of fields, from journalism and radio to – er – romantic fiction. (Not quite my favourite genre of literature.)
But it was the romantic novelist whose input stayed most with me, and I say this not only as a man (who would not like such books) but also as someone who rebelled against the teaching of English Literature at school. Far too girly and nothing like as useful as science, I thought then.
No: the romantic novelist taught us some important elements about how to tell a story well. You had to have an introduction which got you into the problem that the story was to solve. Most of the book was about the tension of trying to resolve the problem. Finally, it is resolved and at that point you finish the story quickly rather than stringing it out. She also introduced us to the ‘back story’ – that is, the lives of the characters before their appearance in the story.
I share all this, because when we come as we always do at the beginning of Lent to the account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, we often speak of it as a story in its own right. However, it is not. The signs are there at the beginning and end of our reading. We begin with Jesus returning from the Jordan (verse 1), which tells us this is following on from what we have just read, and we end with the devil departing from Jesus ‘until an opportune time’ (verse 13).
In other words, this is an episode, not the whole story, and it has clear connections with what surrounds it. So this morning I want to explore the temptations within the big story of Jesus and the Gospel. We’ll take four key elements of the episode and set them in a bigger context.
Firstly, I want us to consider the role of the Holy Spirit in the episode and the bigger story. Our reading begins with Jesus ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ yet ‘led by the Spirit in the wilderness’. Is that what we expect the Spirit-filled life to look like – a wilderness time? The relationship so far between Jesus and the Spirit has been warm. He has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, and he has just been baptised in the Jordan, where the Spirit has descended upon him. Yet for all these positive experiences of the Holy Spirit, now Jesus finds that the same Spirit leads him in the wilderness, that is, in a bleak and parched place.
What’s more, Luke’s language is forceful. ‘Led by the Spirit’ is a rather weak translation, and it makes us think of the sometimes fuzzy or sentimental ways in which Christians say they ‘feel led’ to do something. But the word Luke uses means ‘to be thrown out’. It conjures up the hurling of a ball – say, like a cricketer fielding on the boundary and vigorously flinging the ball back to the wicket-keeper. Jesus is ‘flung’ by the Spirit in the wilderness.
How can this be so? How can the wilderness be in the purposes of God? Isn’t the Holy Spirit the ‘Comforter’? Don’t we just expect warm, glowing experiences of God when the Spirit is present in fullness?
Apparently not. Wilderness experiences can be just as much a part of the Christian pilgrimage as the dizzy, thin-air ecstasies of the mountain-top. To get the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land required a time in the wilderness. When Israel rebels some centuries later and is unfaithful to the Lord by worshipping idols, the prophet Hosea says that God will woo his people in the wilderness. It can be in the wilderness seasons of our lives that God strips things away from us so that our devotion to him is renewed. The comfortable things on which we rely, the good things which we have elevated too highly in our lives – these he puts aside for a season so that we may remember who our first love is.
Perhaps that is one of the purposes of a Lenten exercise – to consider again the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as being worthy of devotion before and above all else. How dangerous it is when faith becomes corrupted into a hobby.
And that leads us to our second theme, namely that of self-denial, seen in the way Jesus fasted during the forty days (verse 2). Those of you with good memories will remember the days of an annual event in churches called ‘Self Denial Week’. For one week, we lived differently. Now I think those events can be helpful, but only if they are signs and symbols of a wider commitment to self-denial. Jesus didn’t simply fast for forty days and then think, “Great, now I can get back to self-indulgence.” Nothing of the sort. He rebuffs the first temptation to turn stones into bread (verse 4). He refuses to worship the devil (verse 8), because that will subvert all he has come to do. He will not go for the spectacular show-off event of diving off the Temple like a religious stuntman (verse 12).
Why? Because all three temptations go against his core mission, which is based around denying himself in order to love and serve others. This is what he came to do. Oh, we see plenty of evidence that Jesus enjoyed life. Religious killjoys can take no true inspiration from him. However, from the Incarnation to the Cross, his is a life and ministry of self-giving.
Does this have an application for us? Although people are having to be more careful financially in the last five years, it is apparent that our culture is based not on self-denial but on self-fulfilment. We are our own gods. Our politicians encourage our belief that the economy must always grow. As one Christian website put it the other day,
Every day, we are bombarded with the message that equates the “good life” with the “goods life.”
And whatever difficulties we are facing, the fact remains that we live in the wealthiest county in this country. At my first staff meeting in this circuit, one of my colleagues asked this question: ‘Is the Gospel against Surrey?’ Because it might be. And it might be that part of our witness involves self-denial.
Thirdly, I want us to dwell on that repeated title for Jesus, Son of God. Twice the devil begins a temptation with the words, ‘If you are the Son of God’ (verses 3 and 9). If? Jesus has just had a profound experience of the Holy Spirit at his baptism where he has heard a voice from heaven referring to him as God’s Son. The work of the Spirit in his conception is a sign that he is the Son of God, according to Gabriel at the Annunciation. If he is the Son of God? He is the Son of God! The wider, big story is there in those words!
Yet here is the attempt to undermine the core of the story. If. It’s like the snake in Eden asking, “Did God really say …?” Here is an attempt to slice the ground from under the feet of Jesus, just as the enemy does with us. Just enough of a voice to make us disbelieve what God has said and done. That’s all it takes.
Now for us it can’t come in terms of ‘If you are the Son of God’, because none of us can be Son of God in the unique way Jesus is. But the devil can do it in a way relevant to us. ‘If you are a child of God’; ‘If you are a Christian’, and so on. It can be in the form of, ‘Are you really a child of God? Are you sure that God loves you? Someone like you? If you were a real Christian, you wouldn’t have done that.’ Does that sound familiar? Subtly we have been switched from focussing on the love and grace of God to majoring on our failures.
So beware of that voice – not a still, small voice but a quiet, insidious voice. Jesus at his baptism had not simply been reminded of his unique divine status, he had been reminded that he was loved with an everlasting love before he had even set out to begin the ministry for which he had come. And God wants each one of us to know that we too are loved with no strings attached. He loves us first. He loves us because he loves us. This is the foundation of anything and everything that we can do in a spiritually healthy way as Christians: knowing that we are loved unconditionally by the Father.
Fourthly and finally, battle is joined over the Scriptures. Every time Jesus is tempted, he squashes the attack with his Hebrew Bible: ‘It is written’ (verse 4); ‘It is written’ (verse 8); ‘It is said’ (verse 12). The devil cottons onto this, and even tries quoting Scripture in the final temptation (verses 10 and 11).
Again, we need to see this as a thread in this episode that is seen in the bigger story. The early chapters of Luke’s Gospel have been stuffed full of quotations and allusions from the Hebrew Bible. The coming of Jesus the Messiah is the central event in the biggest story of them all, the story of God’s redeeming love. Not only that, I believe Jesus is very intentional about the particular verses he quotes in response to the temptations. I don’t think he sits there simply thinking, “What verse would be good to use here?” Every verse he cites comes from Deuteronomy, a book centred on Israel’s own wilderness experience. He sees the temptations in the framework of the bigger story, too. It’s the devil who can’t quote anything that parallels the big story that is going on here. His quotations come from elsewhere in the Scriptures, they are random quotations, fine in their place, but irrelevant to notion of God’s people and God’s Son in the wilderness.
Perhaps this illustrates the dilemma we can face as Christians. We know the Bible is our source book, our supreme insight into God’s ultimate authority in Jesus Christ. Yet we also know how it can be misused, and have probably done so ourselves, unwittingly at times. Sometimes we have been Pharisees, quoting Scripture rigidly, and hurting people with it.
I believe that if we set ourselves to follow not only a disciplined, regular reading of Scripture but also disciplined methods of doing so, we shall have more of a chance of using Scripture spiritually and responsibly. It will not be for everyone to use the academic disciplines that preachers and ministers deploy, but there are age-old, tried and tested methods known in Christ’s church. Yesterday at Addlestone we had a half-day of prayer, and during that time I taught two of them. One is called Ignatian Bible Reading, which involves a sanctified use of the senses and the imagination. The other is called Lectio Divina, where we read the text, meditate on it, pray through what it is saying to us and then seek to live out the text. The great spiritual writer Eugene Peterson has said of Lectio Divina that it is
A way of reading that intends the fusion of the entire biblical story and my story.
And if indeed the temptations of Jesus are an episode in the bigger story of redemption, then would it not be good in all that we do this Lent to seek to find where our story fits into the big story of God’s saving love in Christ?
How many of you drifted back to your youth in the 1960s when you heard today’s Bible passage and started humming this under your breath?
Of course, in the spirit of the folk-rock revolution at that time, Pete Seeger changed the last line about ‘a time for war and a time for peace’ to ‘A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.’
Or perhaps you have memories of funerals where those opening eight verses about a time for everything from ‘a time to be born’ to ‘a time to die’ (verses 1-2) have been read, and we may say that at death a person’s time has come.
But rather than default to the popular associations of this passage, we need to ask what problem the Preacher in Ecclesiastes is struggling with. I suggest to you that in this chapter he is grappling with the question of eternity. The faithful people of his day understood the idea of God’s eternal nature, but they didn’t have the perspective Christians have of eternal life. Not for them the understanding that Christ’s resurrection brings, and the hope it carries with them. There is very little in the Old Testament that connects with that.
The Preacher navigates three issues that we struggle with, and he knows they all require the setting of eternity. Let’s explore them together.
The first is the question of time. So yes, we’re into those first eight verses about there being a time for every activity under the heavens (verse 1). The point of the language here is that most of these areas of life are ones where we have some control over the decision-making, even though they don’t always sound like that in English. For example, we have no control over our ‘time to be born’ but the Hebrew is more about ‘a time for birthing’ and while expectant mothers can’t have complete control over when they give birth, the Preacher is alluding to all those decisions we freely make which lead up to the birth of a child. Similarly with ‘a time to die’: to a large extent we cannot control that, but we do make decisions over the years which contribute hugely to the outcome.
What Ecclesiastes is facing us with here, then, is the whole question of how we make decisions in the space and time allotted to us. Life is filled with decision-making. In our (still) wealthy western consumer society, we are faced with even more decisions. Go to the supermarket and view your options in the different categories of food. Just to type in the word ‘tomatoes’ on Tesco’s website returns 175 results for the Sandhurst store that makes online deliveries to Knaphill. We have so many decisions to make, some important, others trivial, that we can become fatigued by the very need to do so. Go into my favourite world of computing and one reason a company like Apple has become so popular is because it has narrowed down the choices for people and made life easier.
Some of this for us is what is called a ‘first world problem’ – that is, we who live in a rich country are faced with many more possibilities than someone living in a famine-ravaged region of Africa. And that is undeniably true. However, all Christians have a responsibility to make good decisions in life, in the light of eternity.
I am not of course talking about seemingly trivial decisions. This is not a sermon about how to decide what shirt to put on in the morning, or whether to buy a Mars bar. I am not suggesting that we start seeking specific divine guidance over such matters. We have a range of decisions to make in life. In some cases, I believe we need to consult God specifically, and in others he has given us the freedom and responsibility to make good moral and ethical choices.
The point for all of us is that our decision-making in life has significance. If life ended in the grave and that was all there was, then despite what the atheists say, life would be emptied of all meaning. But because we believe there is more, and because we believe that our choices in this life impact the life of the world to come, Christians can rejoice that their decisions have meaning and importance. I do not say this so that we feel terrified about the consequences of every potential decision, but rather to encourage us. Whenever we thoughtfully and prayerfully engage in a life choice, doing so because we want to please Christ and work for his kingdom, then we are putting small yet eternal building blocks in place for the life of the new heavens and new earth that he will bring with him when he appears.
Be encouraged, then, that the holy decisions you make now will play out for eternity.
The second issue to think about this morning is our toil. Two weeks ago in the evening service, where we looked at the opening verses of Ecclesiastes in greater depth than we were able to in that morning’s all age worship service, we touched on the subject of work. To the Christian, work is something that was created as good by God, yet which was tainted with frustration and struggle through sin, yet which is redeemed through the resurrection of Jesus, in very similar terms to what I have just said about our decision-making. The work we do now ‘in the Lord’ is not in vain, but will be taken up into the kingdom of God.
Here, in chapter three of Ecclesiastes, we revisit that but go a little wider. The Preacher wonders what workers gain from their toil (verse 9), recognising the burden (verse 10) that although God has made everything beautiful in its time and set eternity in our hearts, we cannot fathom what he has done (verse 11). However much we labour and toil, and however much we know there is an eternal context, we still struggle to understand the meaning and purpose of what we do.
I have heard people talk about their sense of futility in their daily jobs. Some have thought that by giving up a regular job and working for the church or a Christian organisation, they would find greater fulfilment. It isn’t always the case. The other morning, I called in here at KMC after the school run and chatted with our friends who run the Pied Piper Pre-School. It was about fifteen minutes before any parents and carers were due to drop off their children, and Karen joked with me that I had arrived too early to play on any of the soft toys.
“Sometimes,” I said, “you don’t know how attractive an option that would be.”
Many – perhaps most, or even possibly all – of us go through periods of feeling like work is little more than a pay packet at best. How can we find some meaning and significance in that part of life? Graham Dow, who is now a retired Anglican bishop, gave this some thought when he was a tutor training ordinands for the ministry. He used to ask new students to write an essay about the jobs they worked in before their training. Many would refer to the opportunity for Christian witness at work, but few saw their previous careers as fulfilling a Christian calling. But Dow claimed there were three major purposes for all kinds of good work (not just ‘church work’) in the Scriptures:
- Creative management of God’s world;
- Moral management for the good of all;
- A community of good relationships.
I cannot promise that when you arrive at the office tomorrow morning you will find that all eight hours (or however long) you spend there will suddenly become fulfilling. Sin and futility will still have their say. But I can suggest that if you can look for the possibilities that in your daily work you can either creatively manage part of God’s world, or exercise moral management for the common good, or you can contribute to a community of good relationships then you will start to make connections between the eternity that God has set in your heart and the purposeful work of him who has made everything beautiful in its time.
The third issue we need to face in the light of eternity is testing. In the last few verses of the chapter, the Preacher gives us various bits of data that sum up the conundrum of living. He tells us there is nothing new in life (verse 15). He speaks about wickedness supplanting justice (verse 16), yet trusts that there will be a time for God’s justice (verse 17). God’s testing of human beings simply exposes us as no different from the animals, because like them we die (verses 18-21), so enjoy your work while you can (verse 22).
A famous Christian physicist and neuroscientist of a previous generation, Donald Mackay, used to bemoan a line of thinking that he called ‘nothing buttery’. No, it wasn’t anything to do with margarine or low fat spreads, for Mackay ‘nothing buttery’ was the idea that something or someone was ‘nothing but’: for example, in the terms of our passage, human beings are ‘nothing but’ animals; human beings are ‘nothing but’ mortal creatures. Mackay said it wasn’t the statement that people are animals or that people are mortal that was the problem. The problem was to say they were ‘nothing but’ that.
And that’s the difficulty here at the end of Ecclesiastes 3. If we say that humans are nothing but animals, then where is the special sense of dignity we feel? If we say that human beings are nothing but mortal and will die, then where do we stand in the context of eternity, because everything we do returns to dust and that’s that?
Mackay would say we are animals and we are mortals, but we are more than that. We are more than animals, because we are made in the image of God. While we share characteristics with the animal world, we have a special dignity due to the divine design. And yes, we are dust and to dust we shall return – but we shall not stay there. The God of eternity will one day raise us from the dead with new bodies animated by the Holy Spirit, and we shall live rejoicing in God’s new creation.
These are the truths to sustain us when life tests us, and test us is surely does. We do see injustice. People die, and one day we shall join them. Nothing lasts. Those who live without God may make brave statements about finding beauty and wonder within the confines of this life, but ultimately – on their own admission – it all disappears.
In contrast, the Christian can live with a sense of hope and purpose in the face of the bleak hand that life sometimes deals us. That doesn’t mean we know all the answers now. We have to hold on with what my former college Principal George Carey used to call a ‘reverent agnosticism’ – we don’t know, but we trust God. We too may walk in a dark tunnel, but we have reasons for our faith that we shall one day walk into the light.
However, I would hate for that promise to come across in some glib way. I have known times in my life when the darkness has seemed too intense, too all-encompassing. Only later have I known it was worth hanging on.
But because of my experiences, let me offer you the gentle word of hope that one day you will find the light again. Whatever life tells you, and however desolate the picture the Preacher of Ecclesiastes is at times, hear this promise and tuck it away in your mind: resurrection light is coming.