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.
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?
Last week, I was asked to give an extended talk to a midweek group on this theme. This is the text I had before me when I gave the talk.
No one really talks about Holy Saturday, yet if we stop and think about it, it’s where most of us live our lives. Holy Saturday is the no-man’s land between questions and answers, prayers uttered and miracles to come. It’s where we wait – with a peculiar mixture of faith and despair – whenever God is silent or life doesn’t make sense.As we turn to explore the silence of God, we are compelled to address the problem of unanswered prayer more literally than we have done so far, examining the times when God simply doesn’t reply to us when we pray. It’s not that He’s saying ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ to our prayers; it’s that He’s not saying anything at all. We pray and pray but God remains silent.
Click the link above to see the two short talks I am giving this Sunday about the rôle of Caiaphas in the death of Jesus. The first talk (slides 1 to 11) is based on John 11:45-53, where Jesus is seen as a threat to the privileged status of the religious ruling classes in their cosy relationship with Rome. The second talk (slides 12 to 17) comes from Matthew 26:47, 57-66 where at the trial Jesus’ confession of deity (‘Son of Man’) leads to a display of misplaced religious zeal. So it all religious zeal wrong, or is there a better way?
The talks are necessarily short, coming as part of all age worship, and on a Sunday when we are holding our AGM after the service. I am well aware there is much more that could be said.
Have you given up anything for Lent? Some of my friends have denied themselves the usual chocolate. Another has started an annual practice of giving up Facebook.
But if you had asked this of my wife some years ago, she would have given you a strange look. She came to faith and had her early Christian formation in a Baptist church. When she met me, she found the practices of the Methodist Church strange. I must admit that as someone who has been in Methodism since the womb, I still find it strange!
And one practice Debbie had never encountered before was Lent. The day she asked me what Lent was, I couldn’t believe I was hearing what she said. Surely everybody knew what Lent was? It’s been part of my background all my life! Indeed, except for when Easter Day occurs on the very latest day in the year that it can, my birthday always falls within Lent. Thankfully, I’m allowed to feast on my birthday – according to my rules, anyway!
Now the reading from Philippians seems a good one for Lent. Not that the earliest Christians practised it, but it is a passage that explores the importance of self-discipline. Now while Debbie’s home church was lower than low – calling baptism and Holy Communion ordinances, not sacraments – I’m sure they too would have endorsed the importance of self-discipline in the Christian life. And at Lent or any other time, that is a critical part of our discipleship. It’s also – as we shall see – an area where we can be a counter-cultural witness in our world today.
Implicit in Paul’s teaching here are various core Christian reasons which provide the foundations for living a life of self-discipline to the glory of God. It’s those beliefs I want to explore today.
We begin at the Cross. Christians always have to begin at the Cross, and Paul does so here.
For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. (Verse 18)
Paul sees that a root cause of self-indulgence is not taking the Cross seriously. The Cross is not merely the place where I am forgiven – so that I can keep living however I like and then return for the next batch of forgiveness. The Cross is the model for our discipleship. What Paul teaches here is consistent with Jesus telling aspiring disciples to deny themselves, take up the Cross and follow him.
Christianity, then, is less about what I can get and more about what I can give. So much of our conversation, even in the Church, is peppered with the assumptions of consumerism. Does this church suit me? Did the worship feed me? Does it have what I need? It’s very me-centred. But the Cross says we have to take a different approach. And disciplines of self-denial and self-discipline are those which call us back to the Cross. They are not preventing ourselves becoming fat, they are about tuning ourselves into the wavelength of the Cross.
So a week ago, when there was a news story reporting the development of a new low-fat chocolate bar, where the fat particles are replaced with water, air or gels, the Daily Telegraph was wrong to call it the ‘Chocolate bar that can be eaten during Lent’. The point of self-denial isn’t about losing weight, it’s about a sign that we will walk the way of the Cross. As one person put it,
Lent is supposed to be concerned with spiritual discipline and self-denial, not a handy way of losing a bit of weight. If the new low-fat chocolate tastes as good as an old-fashioned one but doesn’t pile on the pounds, then where’s the self-denial?
So we approach Lenten disciplines of self-denial not as some kind of belated New Year’s Resolution to get ourselves in shape; we embrace them as a sign that we accept the Cross will shape the way we live.
The second Christian building-block in Paul’s teaching is worship. Hear verse 19 again:
Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.
‘Their god is their belly.’ Who do we worship when we are self-indulgent? Ourselves. This comment of Paul’s tests what we truly believe worship to be, because it’s a question of allegiance. Does my stomach deserve my ultimate allegiance? I need to feed it, but when it becomes my god, something has gone badly wrong.
This, then, is about how we understand worship. Much as I enjoy worship with a band, featuring a lot of contemporary songs, and other people love their hymns, how dangerous it is when we end up worshipping worship. And we forget what worship is. The main New Testament word translated ‘worship’ means ‘to move towards and kiss’. However, the ‘kiss’ envisaged is the ‘kiss of homage’, like that offered to a monarch, and even still kept in a symbolic and ceremonial way in our society when a new Prime Minister or bishop is appointed. They have to go to ‘the Palace’ to ‘kiss the hands’ of the sovereign.
Worship is not in the first place about the good feelings and the positive experiences. It is about declaring our allegiance to Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord or Lords. When we deny ourselves as a spiritual discipline, we do so not to torment ourselves but to affirm that God’s will comes first in our lives. We are to indulge his will, not our appetites. We ‘do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’, and so our worship is seen by taking God’s word seriously and putting it into practice as a priority. When we do that, our god is not our belly. Instead, we give ourselves in devotion and worship to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As we come to our third and final foundation, you could say this is a question of past, present and future. A past event – the Cross – shapes our behaviour now. Our present activity – of worship – needs to be rightly directed to God. So thirdly and finally, that leaves a future component – the kingdom of God.
But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. (Verses 20-21)
Jesus is coming, says Paul, and our minds are set on him rather than ‘earthly things’ (the worship point again). But Paul goes further: what Jesus will do when he comes also leads us to consider our behaviour now. When Paul says, ‘He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory’, he is making a reference to the Resurrection. Jesus’ own ‘body of humiliation’ was transformed into a ‘body of glory’ in the Resurrection. You will remember that the risen Jesus was identifiably the same man who had been crucified (once the disciples’ eyes had been opened), but his body was also somehow different (remember how he appeared in their midst in a locked room, and how he disappeared from sight after the meal at the end of the Emmaus Road journey).
So, says Paul, we are in for transformation, too. When Jesus comes again and renews heaven and earth, he will raise us up and renew our bodies, just as his was. This will be an expression of his reign in his kingdom, for he will do it ‘by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself’ (verse 21b).
If you’ve followed me thus far, one thing you will understand is that our bodies matter to God. They are important to him. The great future of God’s kingdom is a physical one. The idea often trumpeted that our body is just a shell and that the real person is the invisible soul simply doesn’t match the New Testament’s teaching. Our bodies are part of God’s good creation. Yes, they are imperfect and they decay (what Paul calls here the ‘body of humiliation’) but God does not intend to discard them, he will renew them at the resurrection of the dead.
What does all this have to do with our Lent theme of self-denial? For one thing, it reminds us that self-denial is not about self-hatred. It is about self-discipline, and that’s a whole lot different. When we deny ourselves, we are not doing so in order to torture ourselves, like Filipino Christians being nailed to crosses as acts of devotion. It is more that we are training our body for better use in the service of God. It is why in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul uses the image of an athlete training to compete in the ancient Olympics. So too our self-denial is an act of training: we are getting ready for the Great Games themselves in the Kingdom of God.
In other words, self-denial is a positive action. It is about love for God and his ways. It is part of building for God’s kingdom.
In fact, it is something we practise in other areas of life. I remember one particular aspect of our marriage preparation. We sat in the lounge of the manse where the minister friend who was to marry us lived. I recall how awkward he felt about having to ask some of the standard questions to two people he knew. I was one of his circuit colleagues!
One question in particular stuck with me. he talked about the promises in the marriage service where the man and the woman say they will honour one another with their bodies. Now I guess many couples think that when they say, ‘With my body I thee worship’ or some modern equivalent, it is really a coy, veiled reference to sex. But our friend had a different take. He looked at me and said,
“Dave, how are you going to look after your body for Debbie’s sake?”
Well, as someone who has put on a stone in weight since marriage, it may well be I haven’t honoured that as well as I should have done!
But perhaps the point stands. And perhaps it helps us see that while we naturally accept we would deny ourselves for our loved ones, how much more we might do so for the love of our God?
In conclusion, I can’t tell anyone whether they should give up anything for Lent and if so, what. But I can invite us all to examine ourselves and ask, is my life being conformed to the Cross or are there areas where I need to deny myself in order to make that more true? I can invite us to look at who or what we worship, to see whether our priorities need correcting by self-denial. And I can put before us all the hope of resurrection to enquire whether we need to deny ourselves out of love for God and his ways, by building for his kingdom.
It’s the last Sunday before Lent. (Yes, I know it’s Valentine’s Day and I haven’t forgotten my lovely wife, but that’s not what I’m writing about here.) I thought I’d recommend a couple of Lent resources.
First off, a collaboration that would have been unthinkable some years ago. The Methodist Relief and Development Fund and the Evangelical Alliance have combined to provide Bible study notes and weekly videos. You can download notes for ‘What does the Bible say about power?‘ from the MRDF site; videos will be posted weekly from the 17th at the EA site. The EA are using this to link social justice with the Biblefresh initiative. Years ago, official Methodism wouldn’t even have talked with the EA; what a wonderful sign of changed moods.
What are you doing for Lent?
This morning I headed off to church on my own. Debbie and the children went swimming. There were a few reasons behind this parting of the ways. Firstly, when I’m not sabbaticalling, the Sunday School at Broomfield is only alternate Sundays. Debbie doesn’t feel she can make the children sit through an adult service regularly, so she began taking them for fun swims to boost their skills. Yesterday, they said they wanted to go to the pool again.
A second reason would be that I’m still uneasy about missing worship for anything other than illness. I attribute that to my upbringing in a church family. There is something positive about keeping the Sabbath that is important to me. I’m going to find it hard next Sunday: not only is it Mothering Sunday, it is also Rebekah’s birthday, and I know there will be pressure for us to miss church and go out somewhere.
But there is a third reason. I can’t swim.
I had some lessons at school, but at primary school they were scuppered by a traumatic experience. I saw my best friend held under the water. That did things inside a seven-year-old’s mind, and I never recovered. Going onto secondary school at eleven, the games teacher was the macho sort who was aggressively unsympathetic to any boy who couldn’t swim. All he did was haul me across the width of the pool by a rope.
I’ve never seriously revisited the issue. When Debbie and I were on honeymoon, we spent a few days at an hôtel with a pool and she offered to help me learn. Since it was her, I didn’t mind. But I just couldn’t grasp it.
Every now and again, she asks me to take adult lessons. I feel there are so many fear barriers I would have to cross. One is whether I would be humiliated again by a teacher. Another is how I would cope without my glasses on. (I’m not a suitable case for contact lenses – long story.) And some other things. Yet I am one who stands in a pulpit and tells people that Jesus can help them through the painful memories of their past. One day, I’ll have to find a way of dealing with this. Right now, I’m not sure how. I only know it will have to be gentle.
As for the worship, one or two parts really struck me, not least the Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent:
whose most dear Son went not up to joy
but first he suffered pain,
and entered not into glory before he was crucified,
mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross,
may find it none other than the way of life and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
How many times have I heard those words? How often have I read the biblical passages on which they are based, not least Paul’s words in Philippians, where he wants to know Christ and the power of the resurrection, but only through ‘fellowship in his sufferings’? Today, however, they were a living word for me, making sense of the down times and the dry spells since coming to Chelmsford. Perhaps these will prove to be ‘the way of the cross’ and that hope is coming.
It certainly tied in with what Paul, the vicar, preached about. He changed the Lectionary Epistle reading and preached about how we can face darkness as Christians. He should know. As he said publicly on this occasions, and has said before, he has battled depression for thirty years. It was an honest and hopeful word.
One lovely thing today, and one sadness. The former came this afternoon, when we took the children out to a playground in a local park. There, Rebekah saw someone from school. He is permanently in a wheelchair, but had been at the swimming pool this morning. He had thought Rebekah must be in Year 3 (she’s in Year 1). She asked if we could go and speak with him and his grandparents. We made a new friend, someone we can now speak to when we see him at the school. All because Rebekah made the overture of friendship. She’s learning missional before she’s six.
The sadness was to learn that another couple we know are separating. That is three couples is less than a year. Two of the couples are Christian families. Our hearts now go out to this couple, and to their children. Our prayers go up for their pain.
St Andrew’s has become our default church for the sabbatical. The children are happier visiting a church where they know some people, rather than every face being strange or forgotten.
Today, Lee, the curate (our next door neighbour) preached. He took the classic Lenten passage from Mark 8 featuring Jesus’ call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. He said that for someone who enjoys preaching about God’s love, such a stern passage seemed difficult, but this was about the love of God, too. For love is a two-way street, and taking up the cross is a way we respond in love to God’s love.
He passed round a cross he keeps at home. He had asked a blacksmith to make it for him before he began training for the ministry. The blacksmith made three nails, and then made the cross from those nails. I couldn’t pass it on quickly when it came to me. I had to examine it and feel it. What a powerful piece of art it was. It reminded me of when I once had nails given out to worshippers at a Good Friday service, and another when I let people know in advance that someone would hammer nails into a cross during the service. Some church members objected. It made me wonder about their faith. I am glad nothing like that happened to Lee today.
He also made a simple, telling point about what it might mean to carry one’s cross. Taking up the cross, he said, can happen when we have to choose between the easy way to do something and the right way. On a day when a pastor has been shot dead in Illinois, I find this poignant. It is of course only too common in many other countries.
St Andrew’s service begins at 10 am, so even with communion and an after-service coffee it’s possible to arrive home early enough to do something worthwhile as a family for the rest of the day. We headed for the Great Notley Discovery Centre. Sunshine and blue skies beckoned us to take a picnic.
Arriving around 1 pm, we settled straight down for the picnic. It didn’t surprise us to eat in blustery conditions: the adventure park is open and exposed. The children got to swing and climb on all sorts of outdoor activities, not worrying that grey clouds were infiltrating the blue.
Except that they got cold, and so we headed back to the café, where we ordered hot chocolates and despite the much reduced temperatures, they insisted on ice creams. Finding the last spare table inside, we sat down. And noticed the arrival outside of horizontal rain. We supped slowly before heading back to the car during a break in the meteorological assault.
I’ll close tonight with some music. In view of various scurrilous comments on Facebook about my age since my birthday last Wednesday, I thought I’d post this clip of the mighty Little Feat performing Old Folks’ Boogie. Sing with me:
Don’t you know
That you’re over the hill
When your mind makes a promise
That your body can’t fill
Before today’s news, here are some links. Let’s kick off with a survey. What kind of technology user are you? The Pew Internet and American Life Project has a quiz. I am an ‘ominvore‘. (Via the Comodo Monthly Insider email.)
Mercy: demonstrating God’s compassion to the poor
Influence: being salt and light in the public life of the community
Life Discipleship: equipping Christians for missional living as workers & neighbours
Evangelism: faithful and relevant communication of the gospel
Square Mile is an exciting initiative, designed to catalyse and equip the UK Church to take a truly integrated approach to mission in partnership with the Alliance and Community Mission.
Square Mile resources include a new DVD-based course designed for small groups, which explores these four areas of mission. Featuring insights from: Shane Claiborne, Mark Greene, J John, Tim Keller, Elaine Storkey, Jim Wallis and N.T. Wright, as well as examples of grassroots projects around the UK. A journal is also availabe containing daily readings, reflections and activities covering four weeks – ideally used alongside the DVD course.
Ruth Haley Barton has an article for the first week of Lent: Practising Repentance.
If it isn’t one, then it’s the other. Mark went back to school today, and Rebekah was off sick. She had diarrhoea in the night and this morning. I’ll spare you further grisly details.
Thus today I have been a teacher and an entertainer. Not that far removed from ministry, is it? I helped her with her reading, her spelling homework and her Maths game.
As a reward, we allowed her to paint a mug. Not one of our existing mugs, one that came in a box with paints and brushes. She has decorated a couple before, but I put the last one in the dishwasher and the paint began to peel. If everything King Midas touched turned to gold, most things I touch shatter into several pieces.
Either side of lunchtime, Debbie, Rebekah and I watched ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang‘ on DVD. It came out in 1968, and I saw it at the cinema first time around. If I didn’t feel old enough already, what with the fact that tomorrow I enter the final year of my forties, I felt even more decrepit remembering that fact.
As I watched it, I mused on this thought. Today, we are used to discussing serious themes in films. Organisations like Damaris Trust and others produce first class material to help in that matter. Usually, the movies chosen are not children’s titles. Yet Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has some simple ideas that would bear some exploration. Here are just a few.
Career-wise, do you follow your dreams, imagination and creative talent, even into penury that affects you and your family, in the hope it will work out in the end, or do you just take a routine mundane job? (Caractacus Potts)
How do you deal with the fact that evil is sometimes blatant and other times disguised? (The Child Catcher)
How do you hang on in the face of evil while injustice reigns? (The villagers keep their children underground, not seeing the sun, while the Baron and his forces seek to eliminate children.)
Can you have successful marriages and relationships across wide socio-economic barriers? (Caractacus Potts doesn’t propose marriage to Truly Scrumptious until he realises his invention of Toot Sweets is going to make him wealthy, just as she is.)
And finally, just a little tiny bit of sabbatical work today. Some of that was reading the terms and conditions for signing up to Survey Monkey. I’m glad I read these. I have to be very careful how I word emails in which I invite people to complete my survey, and include various items to avoid Survey Monkey deleting my account. Clearly they are protecting themselves against use by spammers. I have to include an ‘unsubscribe’ link and my snail-mail address. The problem with ‘ubsubscribe’ will be that I may not be using a mailing list full of individuals, so I’ll need to think of a way around that.
The other thing that has happened is this. You may recall my recent series of posts on The Starfish And The Spider. There was another similar book I also wanted to read. Well, at last, after several weeks on order and being number one in the queue to read it next, ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ by Clay Shirky found its way to North Melbourne Library today, and it is sitting on my desk at last. I had taken to reading something that is not sabbatical related, but which is thought-provoking on a general theme: ‘The God I Don’t Understand‘ by Chris Wright. I may need to return to that later now.