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?
The late Steve Jobs famously insisted that the same design standards be applied to those parts of an Apple product that no consumer would ever see as were applied to the outer parts, which gained admiration for their style.
Something similar is true of the Christian, and certainly of those of us called to the daunting task of leadership in the church. Gordon Macdonald makes a similar point in a recent book, using a similar analogy:
David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge tells a fascinating story about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which arches the East River and joins Manhattan to Brooklyn.
In June 1872, the chief engineer of the project wrote: “To such of the general public as might imagine that no work had been done on the New York tower, because they see no evidence of it above the water, I should simply remark that the amount of the masonry and concrete laid on that foundation during the past winter, under water, is equal in quantity to the entire masonry of the Brooklyn tower visible today above the waterline” (italics mine).
The Brooklyn Bridge remains a major transportation artery in New York City today because 135 years ago the chief engineer and his construction team did their most patient and daring work where no one could see it: on the foundations of the towers below the waterline. It is one more illustration of an ageless principle in leadership: the work done below the waterline (in a leader’s soul) that determines whether he or she will stand the test of time and challenge. This work is called worship, devotion, spiritual discipline. It’s done in quiet, where no one but God sees.
Macdonald’s book is appropriately called, ‘Building Below the Waterline: Shoring Up the Foundations of Leadership‘. The quote above is from the introduction (page 1). By the end of the first chapter he’s making the large claim that almost all Christian leaders agree that they need to carve out one to two hours a day for this work of nurturing the spiritual centre.
There seem to be some other books in recent years that take a similar tack. Ruth Haley Barton’s ‘Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry‘ is one. Pete Scazzero’s ‘Emotionally Healthy Spirituality‘ and ‘The Emotionally Healthy Church‘ are two more. In the last few decades, Eugene Peterson and Henri Nouwen have been voices callng in the wilderness, pleading with us to take this seriously, rather than concentrating on the latest techniques and plans to grow your church. Might it be that at last their cries are being heeded?
So – two questions:
1. What do you do to nurture the hidden parts of your spiritual life?
2. Are there any other authors and books you recommend on this subject?
… is to be a fashion consultant. Welcome to the wild and wacky world of Pastor Ed Young Junior‘s Pastor Fashion. Oh yes. The man who brought you the book Sexperiment now tells you all you want to know about skinny jeans and testosterone. Is there a connection?
I just missed these classes at theological college. I took the trivial stuff like biblical studies, doctrine, church history, pastoral theology and missiology. Eugene Peterson, you got it so wrong.
Meanwhile, Erwin McManus launches a fashion range, but he seems to be doing it for more arty reasons. Apparently, he says,
This is an incarnation into the world of art, story, and creativity.
At least if you read the whole of this interview with him, one of his motivations is job creation.
A Baptist friend of mine said to an Anglican friend, “You are off duty today.”
“No,” replied the Anglican, “I am a priest. It is who I am.”
He did not mean that he never took time off. He meant that to be a priest was about who he was.
In that light, it’s interesting to watch this video interview with Eugene Peterson, where he says,
‘Pastor’ is not a job description; it really is a life that is shaped in a certain way
and goes on to say that you should not treat his books (or anybody else’s) as a manual for pastoring, because it is the most context-specific of all jobs.
Watch and enjoy.
‘Ello. I wish to register a complaint.
Anyone who ever followed Monty Python’s Flying Circus will soon recognise those words from the famous Dead Parrot Sketch. John Cleese’s character Mr Praline has bought a Norwegian Blue parrot from a pet shop but it proves to be dead. The pet shop owner says, “He’s not dead, he’s resting.” Exasperated, Mr Praline eventually declares the animal to be “an ex-parrot”.
The Dead Parrot sketch came back into my mind as I re-read Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. A friend of mine rewrote it as The Dead Church Sketch. So for the part of the sketch where Mr Praline complains that the parrot is not moving and he is told that the parrot has been nailed to its perch, we instead hear the excuse that the congregation has been nailed to the pews.
In Ezekiel 37 the prophet encounters a vision of a ‘Dead Church’, or Dead Israel to be more accurate. A Dead People Of God. He is taken back and forth among the bones to make it clear that the people of God in exile in Babylon are ‘dead’. Spiritually dead.
The vision is appalling and offensive. You didn’t leave dead bones out in the air: the Jewish custom was (and still is) to bury the dead within a day or two of the death. And contact with dead bodies made a Jew ritually unclean, so to leave them out like this for so long increased the number of people who would be made unclean by coming near them.
More offensive than the implications for Jewish ritual law is the message of the vision: the people of God are dead.
Somewhere among our struggles for the future of Church is a similar fear. Declining church numbers. The lack of under-40s. Does The Future Have A Church?
The historian Callum Brown said in his book The Death Of Christian Britain that he could envisage the disappearance of Christianity from this nation. Ten years ago Archbishop Cormac Murphy O’Connor spoke of our faith as having been ‘almost vanquished‘.
We’re beginning to look like a pile of dead bones out in the air.
Might we turn on to Ezekiel again and see whether God might bring a similar message of hope in the face of devastation to us?
Three times God tells Ezekiel to prophesy. The first occasion is this:
Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
To dead bones comes the promise of life. Life will enter the dead by the breath of God, that is, his Spirit. It’s the same word in Hebrew for wind, breath and spirit. Just as the Spirit brooded over the waters at creation and God put his breath in the man so that he might have life, so to have new life – spiritual life – requires the breath or Spirit of God.
Somebody once said that if the Holy Spirit were taken from the Church, ninety-five per cent of all activities would continue just the same. Was that person right? Instead of defining the Christian life as life in the Spirit, we have defined it by busyness and by whether the church has a full and varied programme of activities.
In my last circuit the ministers had to give reports to every Circuit Meeting on the ‘new initiatives’ in each of our churches. Healthy church life was
measured in new programmes and projects, not in signs of the Spirit. Eugene Peterson says,
Along the way the primacy of God and his work in our lives gives way ever so slightly to the primacy of our work in God’s kingdom, and we begin thinking of ways that we can use God in what we are doing. … [I]t turns out that we have not so much been worshipping God as enlisting him as a trusted and valuable assistant.
[Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places, p 124.]
The Old Testament calls God the Helper of Israel. Some English translations of the New Testament call the Holy Spirit the Helper. But this should not be taken to justify that subtle shift from utter dependence upon God to regarding him as an accessory. When we treat the Spirit of God like that, we end up as dead bones.
Ezekiel calls us, then, to receive the life of the Spirit and stop depending upon our dead ways of doing church and being Christian. We fill our empty lives with busyness and possessions, when the only fullness that will satisfy is the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
Some will object and say that throughout the Old Testament the Spirit was only given to certain people and at certain times. In our era, living after Pentecost, the Spirit has been given to all who believe and we who have faith in Christ have already received the Holy Spirit. In response I offer a favourite story.
The evangelist D L Moody was once taken to task for the way he preached on Ephesians 5:18, where Paul says, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’. Moody pointed out that it could be translated, ‘Continue to be filled with the Spirit’, and accordingly encouraged his listeners to be filled again with the Holy Spirit.
Afterwards, a minister berated him, saying, “I received the Holy Spirit at conversion. Why are you telling me to be filled with the Spirit again?”
“Because,” said Moody, “I leak.”
Have we leaked the Spirit? Are we living by faith in dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit? How many of us can honestly say, “Yes”?
The second prophecy. Ezekiel sees some movement:
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
‘But there was no breath in them.’ Devastating. That which the bones most desperately need – breath – is still absent. What next?
Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
‘Prophesy to the breath.’ And if the breath is being summoned prophetically by Ezekiel, then we have here something like that ancient prayer of the Church, ‘Come Holy Spirit’ (‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’), so often used at ordination services. In our terminology, Ezekiel is praying, “Come, Holy Spirit.” It’s an ancient prayer that has come back in popularity in the last twenty years or
so, largely thanks to the late John Wimber and the Vineyard Movement.
Again, certain people will object. They will again say we are living in a post-Pentecost world where the Holy Spirit has been given and is already present. Why say, “Come, Holy Spirit” when the Spirit is here anyway?
Because we are distinguishing between the general presence of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s particular actions and interventions. We are not simply seeking the general presence of the Holy Spirit, but the manifest presence. We need to experience the Spirit at work in our lives and in our midst. Dry bones need to know that the breath is coming into them.
But how do we know when the Holy Spirit has manifestly come? In the Book of Acts there seems to be a common denominator of bold speech in the name of Jesus. It may be the gift of tongues, it may be preaching, it may be courageous testimony.
Other occasions in church history have seen obvious signs that the Spirit was at work. We think of Wesley having his heart strangely warmed and also the dramatic effect upon listeners to his preaching as they sensed the gravity of their sin before God and their need of salvation. We saw it a few years ago with the dramatic phenomena of the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’.
There are, then, clear signs in history of the ‘manifest presence’ of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit also comes quietly, and it is not for us to choose whether the mode of his coming is quiet or dramatic. The ‘fruit of the Spirit’ – his work in us to produce Christ-like character – is a slow process, just like the growth of ordinary fruit. There may be few outward, visible signs when this work begins or continues.
What matters is that we are open to God to do his work in and through us as he sees fit, and not be limited by our restricted vision, our fears or our prejudices.
We recognise that we need the Spirit’s empowering, and refuse to be complacent. The Holy Spirit may be ‘the Helper’, but he is not our ‘Santa’s little helper’. He is one Person of the Trinity. When we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit,” we are saying, “Come, Holy Spirit, in whatever way you see fit, and to do whatever work you see fit.”
Can we pray that? We need to.
The third prophecy:
The story so far: Ezekiel has seen the deadness of God’s exiled people. He has firstly been summoned to prophesy their need for the breath or Spirit of God. Secondly he has prophetically called on God’s Spirit to fill them.
But what now? The loss of hope still needs addressing. It’s no good bringing God’s people back to spiritual life if they are still left in their sense of despair. So this is how the vision concludes:
Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am theLord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
Ezekiel addresses ‘the whole house of Israel’ and he brings them good news. Their new life in the Spirit will involve being placed on their own soil again.
But for that to mean something for us as Christians, it needs translating. Although Christianity has continuity with the Jewish faith, it does not share the promise of physical land.
Our inheritance is both now in Christ and future in heaven. If the Spirit of God places Christians ‘on their own soil’ now, it may or may not indicate a revival of Christianity in our land. But it will mean renewed confidence in Christ. It will mean a sense of hope about our faith that goes beyond the personal hope of glory. It will mean being positive about Christ rather than forever being on the defensive. It will mean boldness to speak of Christ even when we might face opposition, because we know the Holy Spirit will give us the words. It will mean finding ways to live for one another and not for ourselves, as the Early Church did soon after Pentecost, in defiance of our consumerist culture. It will mean the Sermon on the Mount becoming a lived-out reality now.
Are we seeing these things now? How do we measure up? For however far we fall short of these signs of the Spirit, that is the indication of how much we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
So let us pause. If we are not showing all the signs of life in the Spirit that Jesus would wish us to then now is not the time to rush on. Let us stop and drink from the rivers of living water that he gives us.
Perhaps you’re like a guy called Charlie. He worked in a laboratory. After a Christian meeting he asked the visiting speaker this question: “It says of the early disciples that people took note that they had been with Jesus. How come no-one says that about me?”
The preacher prayed with him. Nothing spectacular happened at the time.
But a few days later, one of his work colleagues said to him, “Charlie, what happened to you the other night? You’re a different kind of Charlie.”
For those of us who want to be a different kind of Charlie, this is the hour. Come, Holy Spirit, breathe life into us. May we be planted in the soil you have prepared for us.
 Deuteronomy 33:29; Isaiah 41:13-14; Hosea 13:9
 Where others say Comforter, Counsellor or Advocate – John 14:15, 25; 16:7.
This weekend, we start a new sermon series for Lent and Easter, in which we meditate on the characters who inhabit the Passion and Easter stories. I get to begin with Judas Iscariot.
Miss Duffell was my English teacher. Despite my goody-goody image at school, she was the only teacher I ever wanted to wind up. It wasn’t the way she tipped her cigarette ash into her coffee cup when having a discussion with pupils at break time, it was the fact that she taught English Literature. To my teenage male way of thinking, that was the most useless, irrelevant subject in the curriculum. Especially if you favoured the sciences, as I did.
It was only when I reached adulthood that I saw the worth of all those essays where we had to write character studies of people in the plays we were studying – Bluntschli in ‘Arms and the Man’, Falstaff in ‘Henry IV Part 1’, and so on. When I began to understand the power of the narrative in the Bible, then I started to appreciate the value in appreciating the characters. I learned that we might identify with a person or see ourselves in opposition to them, and through either reaction be caught up more in what the message the author of the story had for us. I might also end up going further than the original author intended, of course!
It’s with that experience in mind that I begin this new sermon series about the people we encounter in the gospel stories of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. If reflecting on a character in a novel or play can have a powerful effect, how much more so when we dwell on those we find in the Holy Spirit-supervised words of Scripture? Especially when we also believe that the same Holy Spirit is here to help us hear, understand, believe and respond.
So this morning I have not given myself an easy task by starting with Judas Iscariot. As with several people in this series, there were several Bible passages I could have picked. But these verses from John 13 get us to the core of what I want to share about him.
The first reference to Judas in this account comes in verse 2:
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.
Our first reflection, then, is on Judas and the devil. Nothing like starting with a difficult and contentious theme, then!
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.
Although I know it is difficult for some people to believe in ‘the devil’, I cannot disbelieve in ‘his’ existence, given Jesus’ belief in him. I cannot reduce Jesus merely to a child of his time, however much he constrained himself in the Incarnation. He is still Lord, and what he says, goes. So rejection of the reference to the devil prompting Judas Iscariot is out for me.
But on the other hand, I know too many Christians who make too much of the devil. One Anglican rector friend of mine used to put every mishap and setback down to ‘the devil’, as if by a reflex reaction.
So when we read John’s careful words that ‘the devil had already prompted Judas’ (my emphasis), let us take particular note of that word ‘prompted’. It is not that the devil made Judas do what he did, but that he had sown thoughts in his head. Judas could then choose what he did about those promptings. Although John clearly portrays demonic activity at work here, human responsibility is still in play. We cannot absolve ourselves of our actions by saying, “The devil made me do it.” Neither could Judas.
We may find ourselves under pressure to sin through persistent temptation. In one respect, we can do nothing about that. It is the lot of all people. Being tempted is not a sin: Jesus was, especially in the wilderness. But in another respect, we sometimes lay ourselves open to those promptings, those temptations. We put ourselves in situations where we know we could be vulnerable to our weaknesses. The devil will exploit that. We deliberately sail close to the wind. The devil will exploit that. Later in this sermon, we’ll see how Judas did precisely that. But for now, let’s simply note that while yes, the devil prompts us with temptation, we still have a responsibility for our actions and we need to do what we can to put ourselves at a distance from circumstances where we know we are weak.
The second reference to Judas comes in the second half of the reading, in the conversation Jesus has with his disciples which begins with him saying,
I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfil this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’ (Verse 18)
It continues with Jesus’ troubled admission that one of the Twelve will betray him, and when pressed about who that will be says,
It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish. (Verse 26)
So this second reflection is about the astonishing fact that Jesus shared table fellowship with his betrayer.
I have often heard people observe, then, that Jesus even gave the bread to Judas at the meal where he instituted the Lord’s Supper. They then take it that we should not be judgmental (fair enough, in one sense) and that there should be no boundaries at the Lord’s table. However, that last statement is patently incorrect from a biblical point of view. Paul was at pains in 1 Corinthians 11 to remind his readers that self-examination was important before taking the bread and wine. Lax discipline at Holy Communion is not good practice.
I would rather see Jesus’ sharing of table fellowship with Judas this way. My current reading is the memoirs of a man who has written more profound books in recent years on what it means to be a pastor than anyone else I have come across. His name is Eugene Peterson, and he is better known for the popular paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. In his latest book, The Pastor: A Memoir, he talks about how when he began the Presbyterian church in Maryland that he went on to lead for thirty years, his early vision was to gather together a group of visionary Christians who were all passionate for what it really meant to be disciples and to be church in a New Testament sense. Instead, he found himself with a rabble, rather as David did at Ziklag when he was on the run from King Saul.
And I observe that I have seen some friends fall away from faith over the years. Each time, they have been those whom I might consider the least likely. In at least two cases, it was weakness to sexual temptation that began their decline. It reminds me that Paul warned his readers in 1 Corinthians 10 that any of us who believe we are ‘standing’ in faith should beware lest we fall. It could be you. It could be me.
Therefore, when we too come to eat bread with Jesus this morning, let us pray that we will, in the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Soldiers of Christ, arise’ ‘leave no unguarded place’. Let us not simply be aware of our weaknesses so that we do not put ourselves in places where the devil might prompt us with temptation. Let us also positively ‘put on the full armour of God’, those godly qualities that are the very opposite of sin.
So what was Judas’ particular weakness? We get a hint later in the story, and this is my third reflection on him. After Jesus tells him, “What you are about to do, do quickly,” (verse 27), we read how the disciples misunderstood (verse 28) that statement:
Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. (Verse 29)
Anyone who has read John’s Gospel cover to cover rather than in short segments will go back to chapter 12, when Mary anoints Jesus with a pint of expensive nard. There, Judas objected that the perfume would have been better used if it had been sold and the money given to the poor, but John reports that Judas didn’t care about the poor: he looked after the disciples’ common purse and wanted to dip his hands into the cash (John 12:4-6).
Judas’ weakness, then, was money. Here is where he failed to guard himself against the devil’s promptings to temptation. Here is where he thought he could stand in faith, but fell. No wonder his reward from the enemies of Jesus was thirty pieces of silver. That would have attracted him.
When the great contemporary spiritual writer Richard Foster wanted to publish a book about the major sins, is it any accident that he wrote about the ‘big three’? He called his book, Money, Sex and Power. These, he said, were the areas of human life with the greatest power to bless or to curse. Perhaps it is no surprise that monastic orders have taken vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience – in direct contrast to these three great temptations.
And perhaps for some of us the way to avoid our weakness will be by a strategy of avoidance. A friend of mine knows that he is incapable of drinking alcohol in moderation. If he has one drink, he will end up having a lot, and getting drunk. So his strategy is to be teetotal. In doing so, those who choose to avoid weaknesses can also be witnesses to a world that believes you can’t be happy unless you’re smashed out of your mind, sleeping around, buying all the latest consumer goods or climbing the greasy pole at work.
However, avoiding our besetting sins is not always possible. And we can also be good witnesses by facing temptation and avoiding it. That, though, requires not a spiritual gung-ho attitude but prayer, dependence upon the Holy Spirit and fellowship. And by ‘fellowship’ here, I mean deep Christian relationships where we regularly hold ourselves accountable to one another. It’s exactly what some of John Wesley’s small groups did. They talked each week about which sins they had been struggling with.
There are similar approaches today. We can form ‘accountability groups’. We can do it in other ways, too. One way that people facing the temptation of internet pornography cope with it is to install a program on their computer called Covenant Eyes which reports to a friend the details of every website the person looks at.
Fellowship is more than camaraderie at the Christmas Bazaar. It’s a vital tool in avoiding the trap that snared Judas.
But, of course, all of this is to some extent rather gloomy. Temptation, sin, avoidance. All necessary to consider for Christians, but is there any good news here? I believe there is, and it comes in the fourth and final reflection. Allow me to introduce it with an illustration.
When I was young and suffering bullying at school, my Dad tried to teach me some Judo. He had learned it in the RAF, and had kept his instruction manual. He argued that the virtue of Judo was that it was not itself violent, but you used your opponent’s strength against them in order to win.
In the light of that, consider Jesus’ words at the end of our reading:
Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. (Verse 31)
Isn’t this what is going on here? Even the evil power at work as Judas gives in to his weakness and responds to the devil’s prompting is something God uses against his enemy for good, to win the victory over sin and death. Judas does not have the last word. Jesus does – in the forgiveness of sins through the Cross, and in the new life of the Resurrection.
Yes, here, in the murky, shabby story of Judas God the Father works his Gospel. He does not inflict violence, but he uses the violence and betrayal rendered against his only begotten Son to bring the salvation of the world. It is the truth of which Paul was to write,
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
In ‘all things’, even the treachery of Judas, God works for good. In ‘all things’, even the darkness of Calvary, God works for good.
And in all things today, God still works for good. The friends or acquaintances who betray us – God can turn it for good. The evil that affects us – God can even use that for good, as he uses the enemy’s force against him.
Allow me to conclude with a story. Members of the Church Council have already heard this, so I hope they will excuse hearing it again. Tomorrow, I return to a previous circuit to conduct a funeral. Sid was a proud Welshman – and his pride was not always his most attractive feature. He was married to Rita, an East German Lutheran Christian, whose response to Sid’s fierce Methodism was to vow never to become a Methodist, otherwise Sid would have won, in her words.
When I arrived in the circuit, he had just retired from a career in the Army and then some years in Civvy Street. That army background made him stiff and – yes – regimented. On one occasion when I had prepared an act of all age worship only to find the Junior Church not ready for it and going out after the second hymn, I received a stern lecture!
One thing Sid had never done, despite a lifetime in Methodism, was make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. I told him that one day he would have to get off the fence.
Well, one Saturday night he did. Sid and Rita attended a concert by a Christian band and choir. He heard one of the musicians give a testimony, and he suddenly thought, “If it can be true for him, it can be true for me.”
The next morning at church, he took Holy Communion for the first time. The look of joy on his face as he knelt at the rail and looked at me is an image that will remain with me for ever.
In the wake of that commitment, he started to soften. He lightened up. He began to forgive, and to become more humble.
In January, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and his health declined fast. Yet during his hospitalisation and treatment, he renewed his commitment to Christ, thanks to the witness of another Christian patient at the hospital.
Tragically, he had become alienated from one of his two daughters a few years ago, due to a terrible misunderstanding in a phone conversation. While he was in hospital, his other daughter said to him, “Dad, if you’re a Christian you’ve got to put things right with my sister.” The daughter in question lived in Germany, and Sid picked up a hospital phone and rang Germany. On his knees he sought reconciliation.
Sid’s suffering and death also led to another reconciliation – between his wife and the next door neighbours. When I visited, one of them was in the house, offering comfort.
The last sentence Sid uttered to his family was this. “You’re not going to like what I’m about to say, but I’m glad I’ve got cancer.”
I don’t know if I could ever say that, but I will say this. That is the testimony of a man who knows that the Judas in his life – in his case, a terminal disease – was something that God was using to overcome evil with good.
For the Judases of this world and the devils do not get the last word. God does.
Still finding it difficult to get back to regular blogging – the diary has been frantic for the first couple of weeks in the new appointment. I hope to resume soon. Meanwhile, here is tomorrow’s (no, this morning’s) initial sermon for Knaphill. It’s Covenant Service, and I’ve introduced a sermon series on Jonah to highlight the theme of mission. A Local Preacher did Jonah chapter 1 last week. I join in at chapter 2.
Last Sunday morning, while I was innocently engaged in taking my first service at Addlestone, something dastardly happened here at Knaphill. I understand that Graham Pearcey brought the rest of my family up to the front where they were asked to share information about me.
I understand you were told that I cannot sing. Well … that is entirely correct. You will want to shower the AV team with chocolates and expensive unMethodist liquids for them fading down my microphone during the hymns and songs.
But while I am poor at singing, I nevertheless love music. Not without cause did I mention in a piece I wrote for Flight Path, the circuit magazine, that one of my favourite gadgets is my iPod. One band I particularly enjoyed during early adulthood was Talking Heads. Their most famous song was called ‘Once in a lifetime’. The lyrics to the first verse go like this (don’t worry, I won’t be singing them):
You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself living in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well how did I get here?
And that – it seems to me – is a good place to begin looking at Jonah chapter 2 in this series on Jonah, the reluctant missionary. How did I get here? There are three questions I want us to ask about Jonah from this chapter, and they take us a little further along the road of his journey into the mission of God. So the first question is this: how did Jonah get here?
And I think my short answer is that Jonah has a warped view of the life of faith, and this leads him away from God’s call to mission. When the call first comes to go to Nineveh, he heads for Tarshish (1:3). Tarshish was a luxury destination: King Solomon’s fleet had returned from there with gold, silver, ivory, monkeys and peacocks (1 Kings 10:22). In the ancient imagination, it was like Paradise. It was Shangri-La. Jonah preferred comfort to calling. That’s something we might well chew on as we renew our Covenant with God later in this service. Are we opting for comfort or calling?
One of the circuit Local Preachers clearly thought we had come to the land of milk and honey in moving from Essex (oh dear) to Surrey – as if it were some contemporary Tarshish. Maybe not so much land of milk and honey, but land of Waitrose. Many others have informed us that the manse is in the most desirable road in the village. So have we come to Tarshish? Let me make one simple observation: by coming here, our insurance premiums have increased!
A recent report suggested that one reason many children of church families don’t continue in the Christian faith is that what they witness from their parents and their church family is not radical, risk-taking faith in Jesus Christ, but comfortable, respectable living. It has no attraction. It is Tarshish faith, and you end up living in a fish.
Jonah has another warped attitude to faith. Let me introduce it this way. Suppose I ask you what the main purpose of Christian faith is. In my experience, the answer most Christians give is, ‘to worship God’. Wrong answer.
Are you shocked by my saying that? Consider this: it was Jonah’s answer. He told the pagan sailors in 1:9, ‘I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land’. His life was about worship. But just focussing on worship didn’t stop his disobedience and his destiny in the alimentary canal of a large fish.
A better answer about our purpose is not that we are here to worship God, but that we are here to glorify God. The Westminster Catechism, so beloved of Calvinist Christians, more correctly says that our ‘chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’. We glorify God both in the church and in the world, in worship and in mission. A church that simply concentrates on worship and on internal matters is one that will find herself sooner or later in a predicament.
In this respect, Jonah stands in the book as a representative of ancient Israel, who was called by God to be ‘a light to the nations’, but who was reluctant to fulfil that destiny. The historical Jonah described in 2 Kings 14:25 is one who is more concerned with nationalism than with the blessing of the nations.
If we want to end up – metaphorically speaking – inside a fish, spending our time swimming in half-digested food and toxins, then we could do no better than to concentrate on worship and internal matters, and give no thought to engaging in the mission of God. That – and his preference for comfort – is how Jonah ended up in the fish. Are there warped faith priorities that have put us in a similar place?
The second question is this: why is Jonah in the fish? You may say I’ve just answered that question. But I want to take it further. Why has God put him in a fish? There is a surprising answer.
We may think that his hotel reservation in the belly of the fish was God’s punishment for his disobedience. However, Jonah was booked for drowning, when the pagan sailors threw him overboard. God sent the fish, not to punish him, but to rescue him. The fish is like some underwater lifeboat, come to save him from going to what the Jews called Sheol, the place of the dead. In his prayer, Jonah sees it as deliverance (vv 1-7).
This location of filth and acid is actually God’s salvation for Jonah. The disgusting stench of the fish’s belly is … grace. By this drastic course of action, God preserves Jonah for his purposes of mission.
Grace isn’t always prettified and beautiful. After all, it depends on nails hammered through the flesh of Jesus onto a cross of wood. We affirm that ‘God works for good in all things for those that love him’ (Romans 8:28), and that means he acts in grace as much through the nasty episodes of life as the joyful ones. One author called it ‘A severe mercy’. You may identify with this from your own life. How many of you look back on certain painful or traumatic seasons of your life and realise – at least in retrospect – that God was working for good through that experience? Maybe he did something in your life that could not have happened unless you had endured something unpleasant.
I believe we can apply this to the life of the church as well as to our individual lives. Think of it like this. Jonah is rescued from death by God’s provision of the big fish. Consider the number of churches that have died. Look at their buildings now turned into carpet warehouses or places of worship for other religions. Now reflect on the fact that this church is still alive. Say what you like about things having been better in days gone by – although I believe that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be and that the golden days were probably only nickel-plated. Whatever your fond memories of what you believe to have been better times, and whatever you might not like about church life as you know it today, the fact is that God has preserved this church.
So the question is why he has preserved us in grace. Surely it must also be that we might glorify him. Surely we are here not only to worship him but to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world, through our deeds and words.
Which means you now know why I picked Jonah as the opening sermon series for my time here. I wanted to make it clear from the outset that I do not believe I came here ‘to run the church’ or ‘to keep everybody happy’. I came with a vision for a church that both gathers for worship and disperses for mission. I believe God has preserved this church in his grace and mercy for such purposes. At this Covenant Service, will you join with me as we renew our commitment to Christ in walking this way?
And that begs the third and final question: what will Jonah do? We read his response in verses 8 and 9:
“Those who cling to worthless idols
forfeit God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’ “
He rejects idols and promises to sacrifice and keep his vows. Idols are those things or people we set our hearts upon, and to which we will sacrifice. They can be good things to which we wrongly assign absolute status. I am sure you can think of many examples without much problem, especially within our society.
However, since we are considering our own lives right now, let me offer some suggestions about the sort of idols that can afflict religious people. We can be guilty of racial or denominational pride. We can be guilty of moral or doctrinal superiority. But let me offer one particular idolatry that afflicts us all too much: church work itself. This can manifest itself in various ways. Here are a couple of examples.
At one stage in a previous circuit, I had to look after an additional church temporarily for eighteen months. During that time, one of the faithful elderly ladies died, and I was asked to conduct her funeral. I met with her relatives, who told me that the church had been her whole life, not just in terms of worship and fellowship, but it had formed her entire social life, too. Clearly, they thought I would be pleased to learn of this.
However, it saddened me greatly. Why, when we are called to glorify God in both worship and mission, would we spend all our time in the church? Could it have assumed a level of importance far beyond what the New Testament calls it to have?
The other story goes like this. Some of you may remember the controversy in the mid-1990s over the dramatic charismatic-Pentecostal experiences of the Holy Spirit that were labelled as the ‘Toronto Blessing’. At the height of that time, I flew to Toronto and spent a week at the church which was at the epicentre of the movement. As well as their regular Sunday morning services, they were running seminars for pastors morning and afternoon every weekday, and they were holding renewal meetings six nights a week. Without exaggeration, thousands of visitors from around the world came to the church every week.
You will not be surprised to know that in such a spiritually intense time and with the church attracting so much attention, enthusiastic members of that church were volunteering left, right and centre to help at the renewal meetings. Some wanted to come and be on duty every night.
But the church leadership said, ‘no’. Much as they needed the help to run all the meetings, they limited church members only to helping with one evening renewal meeting per week. On other nights, they wanted them to attend a home group, do something for Christ in the community and spend time with their families. I think that by doing that they not only encouraged balanced Christian living, they helped their members avoid church idolatry.
So, no, I don’t consider it a badge of spirituality to be down the church every night of the week. Renewing your covenant with Christ today might mean lessening what you do at church in order to give more time to family and community.
And we ought to take this seriously, because in these words of his I quoted a couple of minutes ago, Jonah uses language that is pertinent to the theme of covenant. ‘Those who cling to idols forfeit God’s love for them,’ reads verse 8 in the TNIV. But God’s love here is a weak English translation of a word that stands for God’s faithful covenant love. Dealing with the idols in our lives is about maintaining the faithful covenant relationship with God. Idolatry is something we should examine at a covenant service. It gets in the way of our calling to glorify God in the church and the world, however worthy it appears to be.
When we deal with it, then – like Jonah – we can offer our sacrifices and keep our vows – the vows we make at something like a covenant service.
So – in summary, God is calling us to renew our commitment to glorify him in worship and mission. To that end, as we make our covenant with him afresh today, will we stop making our personal comfort and other things – even church work – our personal idols? Will we reject those things that lead us to treat internal church life as a priority that has excluded our involvement in Christian mission? Will we recognise that the difficulties and uncongenial aspects of our lives individually or together may even be tools God has used to preserve us for this twin calling to worship and mission?
Could it be that God has brought us to this point – like Queen Esther – ‘for such a time as this’?
 Eugene Peterson, Under The Unpredictable Plant, p 15f.
 As suggested in Tim Keller’s book above.
One thing you learn early as a preacher is when to turn the lapel microphone on. In my case, I check that the sound operator will fade my microphone down during the hymns, as I wouldn’t want to add to the congregation’s agony by inflicting my singing on them. Many and legion are the stories of preachers who turned on the microphone too early, disappeared to a small room before the service, only for the entire congregation to learn where they had gone.
Sadly, our Prime Minister has not learned that lesson. This week, Gordon Brown has been The Preacher In The Loo.
I refer, of course, to what has become known as ‘Bigotgate’. I pass no comment on whether Gillian Duffy’s question about eastern European immigration was racist, nor on whether the PM was right to call her a ‘bigoted woman’. Nor do I deny that many people in all kinds of occupations let off steam about difficult individuals when they [think they] are in private.
But what I think cannot be denied is that the Prime Minister was two-faced. When talking with Mrs Duffy, he praised her to the heights, but made his disdain for her known afterwards. If he had simply maintained a level of politeness with her publicly but not told her how wonderful she was, this might have been a lesser incident, rather than a potentially defining moment in the General Election campaign. Anyone who holds a position of responsibility that depends in some way on the favour of those you are meant to lead will surely have some sympathy with Mr Brown, because you sometimes find yourself having to be polite to someone when you’d rather not be. But Gordon Brown went beyond that to the point of contempt, in my opinion.
At the same time, isn’t it frightening to reflect on all those who have been quick to criticise, as if they wouldn’t do anything of the sort? Some chance. No doubt they are correct to say that the Prime Minister is a man with a hot temper – there seem to be too many other stories confirming that. But are we to imagine he is the only politician like that?
Isn’t it something, then, that we come to a famous passage in John’s Gospel this week about love? There’s never much love lost in a General Election campaign. The handshakes at the end of the televised leaders’ debates have to rank amongst the most insincere you will ever see.
But what about us in the church? Let’s go back to those words of Jesus:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (Verses 34-35)
I simply want to reflect on two aspects of this teaching about love. Firstly, what is ‘new’ about this new commandment? I think that’s a fair question to ask. It’s not the first command to love in the Bible. It’s not even the only reference to it in Jesus’ teaching. Elsewhere he was asked what the greatest commandment was. He replied that it was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. He then sneaked in a second one: love your neighbour as yourself. So hasn’t he already made the command to love plain?
I find that comes over to me strongly in one of the Methodist communion services, where we speak of hearing the ‘commandments’ before we confess our sins. What commandments do we read? These two – to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Then, tacked on after them, we hear the command in today’s reading, to love one another. How in heaven and earth can Jesus add a new commandment onto the two he has given as combining to form the greatest commandment? As the great theologian Tom Jones might put it, “What’s new, pussycat?”
Principally what is new here is a new standard of love. Our standard for love is the example of Jesus. ‘Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another’ (verse 34). If we want any idea of what love means, we need to look at Jesus and how he loves. It wouldn’t take us long to think about a number of ways in which the love of Jesus challenges us to deeper love.
To begin with, take the way in which he took on human flesh and lived among us to bring God’s redeeming love to us. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) or in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, ‘The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’.
When I was serving in my first circuit, there was a painful split at the local United Reformed Church. Some had good and necessary reasons for leaving a damaging situation. Others left, they said, to set up a new church on a poor housing estate where there was no church building. They began to hire the St John’s Ambulance hall and hold services on a Sunday afternoon. However, they made little impact on that community.
It wasn’t hard to see why. None of these Christians moved onto the estate. They commuted in from their more comfortable estates every week. They weren’t prepared to pay the price of love that Jesus paid in becoming flesh and dwelling among the very people he wanted to love.
Because that is what love looks like, according to Jesus. You can’t love from a distance. Jesus loved close-up. It’s why I say we can’t expect to spread the love of God in this community unless we are taking that love into the community, rather than simply putting on attractive programmes here and expecting people to flock to our doors. Love Jesus-style doesn’t work like that.
It’s the same in terms of love for any person in need. In another previous church, we once had a mission team visit us for a few days. They partnered some of our members in visiting local houses and pubs, looking for opportunities to share the Gospel.
At the end of the time, we held a service, and afterwards I was sitting down, talking with a young mum who had just joined the congregation, along with her husband, daughter and son. She was telling me how she had lived in fear for the previous six months, because she had found a lump in her breast. Worse, by profession she was a radiographer and she was sure she knew what it was.
Sitting in the row in front was one of the mission team. He overheard this and swooped in with all sorts of platitudes about how she was failing to trust in God. Today, eleven years later, the memory of that incident still makes me mad. That mission team member made no attempt to get alongside Carolyn in her pain and fear. He just launched sentiments and Bible verses like missiles. He didn’t ‘dwell with’ Carolyn, as Jesus would have done. But that’s love ‘as he has loved us’. Hands get dirty. Time and energy are spent. Money and possessions are deployed for others. Because we move into the neighbourhood of those who need love.
Which means also that Jesus-style love is sacrificial. For, as we know, ultimately he loved us by laying down his life for the world. Love is a lot more than dewy-eyed teenagers looking forward to another romantic liaison. Love comes with a cost. It cost Jesus everything. It is hardly likely to cost us any less.
We know how seriously the early church took this. Famously one Christian from around the end of the second century to beginning of the third called Tertullian said, “We share everything except our wives.”
Another early story is of the Christian craftsman who, in order to make ends meet, had accepted a job to make idols for a pagan temple. When challenged about this by a church leader he replied, “But I must live!” The leader replied: “Must you?”
We could find countless examples from other places and times of Christians who knew that real love meant a willingness to sacrifice, even to lay down one’s life – because that is what Jesus had done in love for the world.
And that is why the second aspect of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is about the outcomes of love. Loving one another according to the pattern of Jesus isn’t just a new standard of love, it’s about a new order. The outcome is described in verse 35:
‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
The mark of the Christian community, according to Jesus, is love. It is what distinguishes us. Just as Jesus and the Father were so united with each other, so the Christian church is to be bound up as one with each other in mutual love. As the pagans looked at the early Christians and wondered, “See how these Christians love one another!” so that is not meant to have changed.
Some of you have told me examples of when such sticking-together, sacrificial love has been the gift of this church to you in times of need. Most notably I have heard people speak about such love here in bereavement or in chronic illness.
Nevertheless, it’s always good to be challenged and stretched. As Christians we cannot be complacent and opt for the kind of faith that is merely comfortable and just looks all the time to be patted on the back and sent on our way rejoicing. Given the importance Jesus places here on the world being able to tell that we are his disciples by our love for one another, it seems apt to raise a few simple challenges about our love for one another.
Let’s name a few, then. If Jesus and his Father were and are so at one in their love for one another, isn’t it time to drop all the talk about whether we are ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ a particular person?
Or – if we see how wrong Gordon Brown’s behaviour was towards Gillian Duffy, is it worthy of us to tell people to their faces how wonderful they are, all the while behind their back running a campaign against them?
Similarly, if we truly believe in love like Jesus did, can we treat people as objects, or as means to an end, or even just as bait to attract others?
And if love unites us, can we entertain the idea of cliques in a church?
Oh – and by the way, if these examples shock or surprise you, I have based every one of them on incidents or attitudes I have witnessed in Methodist churches.
What should we do? If we have hurt someone else and they know that it was us, then we need to ask their forgiveness. The sharing of The Peace in a few minutes’ time could be a time for that. If the boot is on the other foot, and we are the wronged party and the other person knows they have hurt us, then in love we need to offer forgiveness. Again, The Peace would be a good time to do this.
Naturally, if one party does not know about the hurt, that might not be advisable. If the other party is not present today, loving offers of reconciliation in repentance or forgiveness need to be offered outside this service.
If one party does not know about the hurt, then perhaps it is best simply to settle this privately with God, unless he directs us otherwise.
But however God leads us, let us remember this. It is not by our beautiful buildings that the world will know we are Jesus’ disciples. It is not by our attractive programme of events that the world will know we follow Jesus. It is by the quality of our love that the world will see our devotion to Jesus.
Nothing could be more important.
At this time of year, much conversation revolves around, “Are you going on holiday? Where are you going?” One of Rebekah’s classmates was missing on Friday’s final day of term, because his family was driving and ferrying to France. Others have flown to Disneyland. Our children wonder why they haven’t been on an aeroplane yet, but we have more modest ambitions and budgets. It still doesn’t seem long since we weren’t confined to the school holidays, and could book cheaper holidays.
Where would you get away to, if you had the choice? I would fancy New Zealand (not just because I’ve seen the Lord of the Rings films), parts of the United States and I’d like to return to Norway, having once done a mission there. After all, where else would you spend nine days in August, but north of the Arctic Circle?
Where would Jesus go? Like a couple in my first circuit who every year travelled with a holiday company specialising in camping in the wildest parts of the world, Jesus’ preferred destination was the wilderness. When he wants a break with the apostles, he invites them ‘to a deserted place’ (verse 31), and that almost certainly means a wilderness.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of a wilderness as a good place for a spot of R and R. I think of somewhere that is too hot, and too dry. That’s why it’s a wilderness, after all. I think about the children of Israel wandering aimlessly and disobediently in the wilderness for forty years, between leaving Egypt and arriving in the Promised Land. A wilderness doesn’t have good associations for me.
But I want to talk today about how the wilderness is a good place in the spiritual life. It is somewhere the Christian Church has known in former centuries as a desirable destination, but in our comfort-saturated world we have lost sight of that. I am thinking not simply of the wilderness in a literal, geographic sense, but also the spiritual wilderness, when our lives seem dusty and barren. Come with me, and see why it is good to be in the wilderness with Jesus.
At my first theological college, we were introduced to the tradition of the Quiet Day once a term. A visiting speaker would address us in chapel two or three times during the day, but we spent the rest of the day in silence – even our lunch. One of my friend made a cardboard speech balloon with the word ‘hello’ on it and brought it to the dining room once!
One year, I decided I would spend the day reading a short book about community. Only a hundred and twelve pages long, I thought I could easily devour it and think about it in a few hours. It was called ‘Life Together’ and was by the famous German Christian who resisted Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
A hundred and twelve pages? Fat chance! If I got through twenty, that was all. Why? Because every paragraph was challenging. The comment I most remembered was one where Bonhoeffer said that nobody should attempt to live in community if they couldn’t cope with solitude.
The apostles in our reading learn community and solitude in the wilderness. Jesus invites them there in order to rest, because he wants to get them away from the notion that non-stop busyness is what makes someone a good or valuable person. You have to come away from that way of life at times in order to reset your priorities. And our priorities are not just to do, but to be. After their recent mission, Jesus calls them away from people to the loneliness of the wilderness, so that they might be with him. When he had chosen them in Mark chapter three, he had not only set their ‘job description’ as including preaching, healing and exorcism. Before all that, their call was ‘to be with him’.
How we forget that for ourselves, too. We reduce Christianity to a series of lists – a to-do list, a tick list, a shopping list. We forget that we are also called to spend what one Christian called ‘A Royal Waste Of Time’ with God. So Jesus urges us sometimes to put the busy schedule away, because it is ruining us. We become like car drivers who never fill their tanks with petrol, and then wonder why we stutter to a halt. And if it requires the drastic action of removing us from the busy place to restore us, then Jesus will take us to a wilderness, so that all we have is him – not our status, not our rôle in the church, just him.
Whether you are an introvert or an extravert, this is a challenge. For the extravert, who gets energy from other people, the wilderness reminds her to depend not on other people but on God. For an introvert like me, who is energised by being alone with books and the like, I am challenged to rely on God and not on other tools. But what is sure is this: Jesus knows we need to ‘be’ as well as to ‘do’, and he will take us to the solitude of a wilderness if that is what it takes.
And yet the apostles still can’t get away completely. They escape in a boat (verse 32) from the ‘many [who] were coming and going’ (verse 31), but when they arrive at the deserted place, there is no peace for them:
‘Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.’ (verse 33)
The apostles have preached the good news, cast out demons and cured the sick (verse 13). It’s like they are victims of their own success. Well, not their success, because it is the work of God, but right now the multitude can’t see that. All they see is need – their own need – and that this group can help them.
Thus we traditionally interpret this episode as being about the importance of putting aside your own need for rest in order ‘to spend and be spent’ for others. But what if we turned it around and considered the thought that God had a purpose for the multitude in bringing them to the wilderness to receive what they needed? What if we concentrated on that?
If we did, I think we’d see that when we are in need, God may well bring us to a wilderness for our own well-being, renewal and healing. Why? Because God calls us to come out of our ‘Egypt’ and journey to our ‘Promised Land’, but the route often goes through a wilderness. We need to leave Egypt behind, with all its temptations and bad influences, but the journey to Canaan is not a quick and simple one. In purifying the pagan influences of our own personal Egypt, God takes us to a stark place in the wilderness where he strips away the toxins that have infected our souls.
When God draws us into a wilderness experience, it is the most natural reaction in the world to kick and scream as we are dragged there. But God the loving Father does this for pure, holy purposes.
One thing is for sure: when God leads people into a wilderness, his intention is to do great things. What happens to this multitude? What we’re reading is the preface to the Feeding of the Five Thousand. They have tracked down the apostles, rather like first century stalkers of paparazzi, but whatever their motives, they end up stranded a long way from civilisation and without food. In that wilderness place, God through Jesus provides generously for their needs.
So it may be with us. We may wonder why we are in a wilderness. It may be due to our own rash choices, or it may directly be in the purposes of God. But God in Christ has good things for us in the parched places of life.
Finally, we read about Jesus and the multitude:
‘As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’ (Verse 34)
What does that have to do with a wilderness theme?
The clue comes in the phrase ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. To which a considered response might be, ‘Huh?’
If it makes no sense, the clues come from the Old Testament. When Jesus thinks the crowd are ‘like sheep without a shepherd’, there is a strong Old Testament background to that thought. In Numbers 27:17, Moses in the wilderness asks God to provide a new leader for Israel ‘so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd.’ They need a leader in the wilderness.
And in Ezekiel 34:5, God’s people are scattered in the wilderness of exile ‘because there was no shepherd’.
Both times, God’s people are in a kind of wilderness, and they need shepherds, or leaders. However much God wants to bless his people in the deserted places, they still need a leader. But how does a Jesus-like shepherd lead the people of God in the wilderness? Isn’t it complicated, leading people in strange, unfamiliar and unwelcome lands – rather like we find ourselves in today?
Surely the ministry of Jesus was like leading his people on a new exodus to the salvation he would bring. He helped them navigate the way through the wilderness into the good things of God’s kingdom. You might list a whole catalogue of things that could involve, but the navigational work of the Christian shepherd in the wilderness comes down to the three priorities elucidated some years ago by Eugene Peterson in his book ‘Working the Angles’. They are prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction. Anything beyond that, whether a current fad or a venerable tradition, is probably extraneous. Just because ‘it has always been done that way’ or because loud voices demand a particular course of action are no reasons to depart from the essential practices necessary to navigate the way through the wilderness.
You may say that Jesus walked this earth in a simpler time, and he did. There are complications provided by the society we live in today. But that is no reason for the Christian Church to add unnecessary complications to the cause of leadership in the wilderness we find ourselves in today. The compassion of Jesus when he saw the crowds simply led him, in the words of Mark, ‘to teach them many things’. Through prayer and study of Scripture, he knew the word of his Father and how to navigate the rocky terrain of the wilderness. There, in the barren desert, Jesus led the multitudes by teaching them the kingdom of God, and by feeding them and healing them. Simple stuff – and therefore a challenge for the likes of me!
So – it may be surprising to cosseted twenty-first century Christians that Jesus wants to bless his apostles and his multitudes in the wilderness. It may surprise us that his favour does not rest on fevered activity, but on a rhythm of ‘being’ followed by ‘doing’ (and never the other way around).
Yet we’re used to Jesus turning the values of the world upside-down, aren’t we? This is the kingdom where the king was enthroned upon a Cross. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so astonished that Christ would use the privations of a bleak location as the scene for our growth in grace.
And in a complex world, the way in which Jesus leads and guides us through the rocky places towards lands of milk and honey lacks much of the complexity our culture deems necessary for everyday living. He also cuts out the all-singing-all-dancing approach the Church has mistakenly baptised, in favour of simplicity: prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction.
Maybe it’s time that a church in the wilderness pared things down to essentials.
Maybe then, we might find life.
My regular reader will know that I have all sorts of questions about what ordained ministry means, and whether we have constricted our understanding of church leadership through our doctrines of ordination. However, as well as reading the contemporary missional texts that for me provide most of the challenge in this direction, I have wanted for a while to read some more classic material. Eugene Peterson is a master of profundity about the pastoral task, with titles such as ‘Working The Angles‘, ‘The Contemplative Pastor‘, ‘Five Smooth Stones For Pastoral Work‘, ‘Under The Unpredictable Plant‘, ‘The Unnecessary Pastor‘ and many others.
But who to read in my own tradition? The initial answer for me has been to cross the Pond again in my thinking, and read William Willimon‘s book ‘Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry‘. I bought it a couple of months ago, and began it last night. While I don’t think I’m going to agree with everything he says (Does Hippolytus win over Scripture in chapter 1? Do the chapter headings indicate that the pastor must also be apostle, prophet and evangelist?), I’m already finding it wonderfully stimulating. I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up sharing several quotes on the blog. Here is something to encourage younger preachers, frmo page 21:
The clergy’s representative burden can also be a great blessing, a source of pastoral wisdom and power. A parishioner emerged from a little church on a Sunday, muttering to her pastor, “You are not even thirty, how could you know?”
Her pastor drew himself up to his full height, clutched the stole around his neck, and said, “Madame, when I wear this and I climb into that pulpit, I am over two thousand years old, and speak from two millennia of experience.”
Willimon observes, ‘The man may have been somewhat of an ass, but still his point was well taken, ecclesiastically speaking.’
I hope you are encouraged.