Friday, 19 February 2016

Lent 2 - Courage & trust

Luke 13: 31-35, Genesis 15: 1-12, 17 & 18

Here we go, another week deeper into Lent, and another week closer to Holy Week and Easter.
Last week I imagine you heard about the temptations of Jesus, and this week’s readings help us to focus on the trust Jesus shows, even though he knows that walking God’s way is walking the road that will lead to the cross.

Jesus shows great courage when he is approached by some Pharisees, who say ‘get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you’. It seems  they are wanting to help Jesus to escape from Herod, to run and spare his life, perhaps so that Jesus can continue his teaching and healing ministry.
But Jesus refuses to run. He does not underestimate the power or the malice of Herod – he calls him ‘ that fox’ - nor is he filled with bravado, believing that Herod won’t dare to confront him.

Jesus recognises that his ministry will end, and echoes the forthcoming events of Easter ‘on the third day I finish my work’. Jesus is clear-eyed about the real danger he is in ‘ it is impossible for a prophet to be killed anywhere except Jerusalem’.
He knows the danger, but he will not run from it, because Jesus does not have his own interests at heart.

This is real courage – the word comes from the Latin ‘cor’ – meaning heart. You might dimly remember from school French the term “affaire de Coeur” – an affair of the heart. Courage is not really about your mind or your nerve – it is about your heart. Courage is sticking with what your heart tells you is right.

Faced by those fearing for his life, Jesus speaks from the heart - of his love for the people of Jerusalem, even if they will not listen to the gospel he brings them. Jesus speaks lovingly of the city and its people ‘how often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers its chicks’.

In the face of the violence of ‘that fox’ Herod, Jesus is determined to put himself between the fox and the little chicks who are the people of Jerusalem.
Like a devoted mother, Jesus will give his own life for the lives of his brood.
And as Good Friday approaches, we remember that Jesus gave his life not only for Jerusalem but for us all.

Trusting in God the Father’s purpose for his life allows Jesus to face the fact that his gospel of love and peace will unsettle the political status quo in Jerusalem and will lead to his arrest and trial and death. But Jesus is not about to give up, shut up or run away. Such is the extent of the love of God which he is determined to live out, such is his courage and heart, that Jesus will accept death in due course.
But for a time he will withdraw and he says “you will not see me again until the time come when you say ‘blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’.”. These words will ring out on Palm Sunday as Holy Weeks begins.

Jesus describes his work so far as ‘casting out demons and performing cures’. This is the work of bringing in God’s kingdom, a place where people will be at peace and will be whole and filled with eternal life. The way Jesus talks about death he is clear that his death, too, is part of the work of the kingdom. In order to show the extent of God’s love, Jesus will not flinch from persecution and death on the cross, because he knows that through his death the power of God’s kingdom of love will be displayed. This is a love which will accept our human condition by going all the way to death, and a love which will prove stronger than death on Easter Sunday.

And what are we to make of the strange ritual that Abram carries out, cutting a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtle dove & a young pigeon in two?

This is very like the sort of ritual which people of the Near East in Abram’s time might have performed to settle a deal between two people or between two tribes. The nature of the agreement is – if one of us breaks this pact, we will be cut in two like these animals.
Abram, a stranger in a strange land, is still waiting for God to make good his promise to give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.

While Abram waits, surrounded by potential enemies, he makes a pact – but this pact is not with another tribe, it is with God. This is another act of trust – Abram decides to place his trust in God, and not in other people. He believes God when he says ‘Do not be afraid Abram, I am your shield.’
Abram, like Jesus, doesn’t rely on his mind to work out the best ally he can find, he relies on his heart and courage to tell him that he should trust God.

So what about us? Do we have the courage to trust in God? Do we rely on what our heart tells us about the God who loves us, or do our minds turn away from the reality of a God who cares?

Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion, said this in a sermon about having the courage to speak out in love:

"It's funny isn't it that you can preach a judgmental, and vengeful, and angry God, and nobody will mind. But if you start preaching about a God that is too accepting, too loving, too forgiving, too merciful, too kind -- you are in trouble!"

We can continue to trust in our own strength, to keep ourselves safe, to avoid the potential danger of ridicule created by putting our lot in with Jesus. When we hear the equivalent of the voices telling us to beware Herod, we can turn tail and run.

Or we can choose to trust and accept the love of God, which we see in the sacrifice of Christ.
We can reach out in prayer to receive his strength and accept our part in God’s kingdom. Like Abram, we can believe that God will be our shield. This may not mean absolute safety and security for our lives, any more than it did for Jesus. But it will mean a place at the table of God’s kingdom and the strength to trust God and seek to do God’s will.

The choice to be courageous this Lent is ours – may God help us to choose well
In Jesus’ name.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Lent 1

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11; Luke 4: 1-13

It has been a very strange start to Lent. Within the space of a week I received news of the death of a colleague, only 10 years older than me; of a friend of about my age; and of a friend’s daughter, 10 years younger. Instead of reflecting on the temptation of Jesus I have found myself reflecting on Ash Wednesday, and the words spoken as ashes are placed on your forehead ‘remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’.

I will be honest with you – I came to the readings for this morning with a heavy heart, or maybe a desert heart – dry, lifeless, hard.
I hope you understand what I mean by that sort of feeling: surely no-one’s life is exempt from the tough times. Death of loved ones, illness, unemployment – or the problems of the wider world: conflicts, refugees, climate change, crime. There are times when we simply have to struggle on and get through.

I think whenever I have read this story of Jesus in the desert (and it comes round every year as it’s in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels) I think I have focussed on the temptations Jesus faces, but this year my eye is drawn more to the desert itself.

Luke tells us that Jesus enters the desert ‘full of the Holy spirit’ – but more than that he says Jesus is there because he is ‘led by the Holy Spirit’. Later, when Jesus returns to Galilee, Luke says he is ‘armed with the power of the Spirit’. The desert is not the place where Jesus is deserted by God, left alone to struggle, disempowered and failing. In the testing environment of the desert Jesus has the Spirit with him every step of the way – in fact he wouldn’t be there at all if the Spirit had not led him there. In facing the tests and enduring the discomforts of the desert, Jesus is strengthened by God’s Holy Spirit and emerges strengthened rather than weakened by the experience.
In reading about Jesus’ experience in the desert I am given hope that what is true for Jesus is true for us too: we are not alone or abandoned when we are in a time of harshness in our lives, but we can be more surrounded than ever by the strength God supplies us, and certainly we are assured that God has not abandoned us, however harsh the conditions.

Can we look and listen and feel for God with us in the deserts of life, so that he can accompany us and strengthen us, so that we might even emerge more resilient, stronger, more ‘armed with the power of the spirit’?

Perhaps you’re thinking this is just wishful thinking, trying to make us all feel better about the tough times by saying the Christian equivalent of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.
But I think there is more to it than that.

When life is at its harshest, when the questions are toughest, when we feel most in need, maybe that is exactly the time we can feel God with us, without the cushioning, deadening effect of the trappings of life.
It is certainly the case that people who go into the stark beauty of a desert place often comment that they were more aware of God’s whisper – why can’t this be true of the spiritual deserts of our lives?

But Jesus’ experience also shows us that the reality is that there is temptation in the desert, too.
Jesus is tempted to seek bread, power and safety. All these things would stop him relying on God the Father, and would undermine Jesus’ confidence in both God and himself. The temptations seek to erode Jesus’ confidence that he is enough, that he is secure, that he is worthy of God’s love.

Jesus is tempted to believe that he has to fend for himself.
Surely that’s the same temptation we face? Not the detail – of turning stones to bread, seeking power through evil, throwing ourselves off the temple – but the point of it all: we are tempted to believe there is no hope for us outside of what we do for ourselves – that God has abandoned us.

When life is tough it is tempting to say “where is God in all this?” and miss the fact that he is right beside us in the desert, waiting to give us the strength we need.

In the face of his temptations, Jesus quotes the sacred story of Israel in order to assert that he is a part of that story and therefore reaffirm his identity as a child of God. Jesus is reminded by Scripture not only that he has enough and is enough but that he is of infinite worth in the eyes of God.
And Scripture can do the same for us. So when life is tough, or when life is good, we can turn to the reading we heard from Deuteronomy.
When the people enter into the promised land, when they have brought in the harvest, when they are breathing out and saying ‘phew we made it’ and when they are in danger of that ‘cushioning effect’ kicking in, they should say :

"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
And how did God bring them to the land of milk & honey ? – through the desert – through 40 years of wandering in the desert.
In the desert they would not have survived unless God was with them – when they have come through they need to remember that God was there, and is here, and is forever with them.

And that is the answer for us.
If we are in the desert, tempted to believe it’s all up to us to cope - God is with us
If we are enjoying the land of milk and honey, risking the complacency of wealth – God is with us
As we journey through Lent to Easter – God is with us.

And in all the stories we will hear in Lent, we will learn that Jesus, strengthened and made resilient through the desert experiences, will face the worst humanity can do to him, and still know and show us – God is with us.                                    Amen.