Thursday, 25 February 2010

1st Sunday of Lent

The season of Lent is a good time for a spiritual overhaul; a time for some self-analysis and inner work that can help us progress on our walk with God. All of us deal with temptation. If you don’t face temptation, then I think you just might need to check your pulse! But Lent isn’t just about giving things up for the sake of self-denial – it’s more about thinking of ways we can co-operate more fully with God and his transformational work. It’s about letting ourselves be filled with God’s presence so that we can be shaped by God’s grace. Because we all use various coping mechanisms in daily life, it can be helpful to deny ourselves some of these things so that we recognise them for what they are, and remind ourselves to seek God for help in coping.

Whatever our diversions or temptations, as Christians it really boils down to whether we are willing to proclaim Jesus as Lord over the whole of our life, because we desire to make someone else or something else ‘Lord’ of some aspects of our life. But the ‘word of faith’ which Paul proclaims in his letter to the Romans is that Jesus is Lord, and we need to affirm this every day, and in every situation. And if Jesus is Lord, then we are his slaves or his servants; yet how marvellous it is that he calls us his friends.

In our relationship with Jesus, faithfulness is the most important thing to God. But faithfulness is not easy. We would much rather take the easy route. In Luke 4:1-13, Jesus faces the temptation to take the easy route towards completing his mission. Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert – it’s as though he is led there to work out his own identity as the Christ. In this temptation we can see the possibilities Jesus mulled over as a human, tempted to prove his Lordship with impressive displays of power. And we see how Jesus responds:

• Suffering from great hunger, and tempted to turn stones into bread, Jesus says that it takes more than bread to keep us alive; it takes more than bread to satisfy the hunger we have for God’s kingdom to come. Jesus is drawing on Deuteronomy 8:3, which says that ‘man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD’.

• The temptation to win the world without having to suffer the cross (so long as the devil is worshipped) is answered by Jesus again with reference to Deuteronomy: The Lord your God is the one you must worship; he is the only one you must serve.

• And when Jesus is tempted to test the special protection of God, he responds again from Deuteronomy: You mustn’t put your God to the test.

Jesus has rebuked the devil with scripture, which I’ll return to in a moment. But now through this passage and throughout the whole of the gospels, Jesus is revealed as the world’s true Lord, but the path to that position, and the style of it when it happens, is humble service, not seeking after status and power. The power that Jesus already has, which he later displays in healings in particular, is used to restore others to life and strength, and not for cheap stunts. Jesus starts out on his public career knowing that struggles lie ahead – but temptation has been beaten on the ground that really matters. His physical needs and wants are important, but his loyalty to God’s will is more important still. If Jesus couldn’t overcome that temptation, if Jesus hadn’t won that victory in the wilderness, there would have been little point in carrying on.

None of us will be tempted in exactly the same way that Jesus was, but every Christian will be tested at the points which matter most in his or her life and vocation. We each have our own weaknesses. Where some are very vulnerable, others are not tempted. The areas we are tempted in can change minute by minute; others remain the same throughout our lives. We need to look within ourselves to identify our own areas which have become targets for temptation and spiritual warfare.

The Christian discipline of fighting temptation isn’t about guilt and self-loathing, or rejecting our God-given humanity. It’s about celebrating God’s gift of full humanity. It’s about finding our identity as faithful people. We endeavour to resist temptation out of our love and faithfulness to God, who calls us his beloved children in Christ, and who holds out to us the calling to follow him in the path that leads to our true happiness, and our true fulfilment, which can’t be found by listening to the lies of the world, the flesh, or the devil.

We might think that so long as things are OK on the outside, then we can just sweep the inner stuff under the carpet. This is a typical lie whispered by the same voice that Jesus heard in the desert. If God is working by his Spirit through a person, that person’s life will be increasingly formed by that Spirit. But the Spirit needs our co-operation to transform us. If we are going to follow Christ, we have to do the inner work as well.

This Lent, we can give up some of the things that tempt us and keep us from trusting in God. We can also take on a spiritual discipline. And here we come back to the fact that Jesus used the scriptures to fight temptation. During Lent, we can commit to a deeper, more prayerful reading of the scriptures, soaking them in, and memorizing some verses which speak to us at places where we know we are weak, so that we can use the word of God as a sword to cut down the enemy’s lies. Scripture itself is part of the armour of God as in Ephesians 6:10-17, which says:
Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

A renewed commitment to Scripture is a great Lenten discipline that will aid us spiritually. The effort and struggle required during Lent is really important stuff if we want to live our lives more and more aligned with the will of God. Our spiritual inner work demands discipline of thought and of feeling, a careful use of leisure, and filling our minds with ideas that point the right way, instead of suggestions that distract us from God and spiritual things. It’s a tough call. But we’re not left without help. I’m going to finish with some verses adapted from Psalm 119; let us make this our prayer:

Lord of our strength,
How can we keep our way pure?
By living according to your word.
We seek you with our whole heart;
do not let us stray from your commands.
We have hidden your word in our heart
that we might not sin against you.
Praise be to you, O LORD;
teach us your decrees.
With our lips we recount all the laws
that come from your mouth.
We rejoice in following your statutes
as one rejoices in great riches.
We meditate on your precepts
and consider your ways.
We delight in your decrees;
we will not neglect your word.


Monday, 8 February 2010

Luke 8:22-25

I wonder if you think like my husband, who says that he could live anywhere in the world, as long as it’s near the sea... Living on the coast as we do, most of us here have a great love of the sea – it provides beauty, recreation, employment, and food. But as our local lifeboat crew will confirm, the sea can also be a very dangerous place. In a different part of the world, about 25 years ago, my husband was competing in the Tall Ships Race. On a beautiful evening, as his ship the Marques was sailing along nicely just north of Bermuda, a sudden squall came up and quick as a flash the ship corkscrewed bow first down into the sea, never to be seen again. There were eight survivors out of 24 people on board.

Rewind over 2000 years ago, in another place where strong winds and waves can suddenly gust up: Jesus and his disciples were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. We know that many of the disciples were fishermen, so they were well acquainted with boats and the changeable sea. But in this case, they were also headed for new territory – they were headed for Gentile territory on the ‘other side’.

They meet with a squall, which must have been pretty big for them to be so frightened. But the story, like many others in the bible, has more to it than first meets the eye. In biblical times because of its turbulent nature, the ‘sea’ represented the chaos and evil of this world. It’s interesting that in Revelation 21, in the vision of the New Jerusalem, there is no more sea, because of the triumph of Christ and the goodness of the New Creation.

As our gospel story unfolds, Jesus overpowers chaos and confusion by calming the raging storm. This event is in a class by itself because Jesus is here with his disciples alone, away from the crowds, and he is ministering to them. It’s rare in the Gospels for the disciples to benefit from Jesus’ power; more often they are observers as he ministers to others, or they join with him in ministering to others. Translating this to the Church, our usual activity is to serve others in the name of Jesus... but just the same, the Church receives the ministry of Jesus - otherwise we just wouldn’t be able to sustain ourselves over the long run.

To minister Christ to each other as a church, we need to be real with each other in our struggles; to pray for each other and to share when God has helped us through turbulent times. To minister to others in terms of mission, we must sail over to ‘the other side’ into new territories, which can be dangerous and frightening. Whenever we venture out with the gospel we are likely to encounter some stormy weather, but Jesus is with us. And he wants us to trust him in this. “Where is your faith?” Jesus asks his disciples. Where do we place our faith? Do we place our faith in our own powers or in the power of Jesus? In another story, as Jesus walks towards his disciples on the water, he says to them, “Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid”.

Last week I was at the Cathedral with the other curates of the diocese for a seminar and a tour. We got to go up to the Choir School to see where the lessons happen, and the Canon Precentor led our motley crew in singing a few hymns. One of the hymns we sang that day is based on today’s gospel reading, so because it is so fitting, I would like to read just a couple of verses of it to you (it’s sung to the tune of ‘Stowey’ for those of you who know about that kind of thing):

Lord, my boat is so small and the ocean is wide
And I fear I’ll be swamped by the breakers and tide.
Your call is the reason I launched from the shore
Convince me again what this journey is for.

When the tempest is raging, the waves crashing down
And we hang on to faith tho’ it seems that we’ll drown
‘Be still’, says the Saviour, his voice ringing clear
No, he will not permit us to perish in fear.

Whatever the storm in our life today, Jesus has the power to calm it! Being a Christian isn’t always going to be smooth sailing. The boat rocks, and sometimes the storm threatens to overwhelm us. We might wonder whether Jesus has fallen asleep on the job; but perhaps our expectations are misplaced. We’re not exempt from the pain and sorrow of this life. But we have the Master of all Masters at the helm. And with him we need not be afraid, whatever the state of the sea.

A prayer: Lord God, we thank you for the beauty and the power of the sea. When we look upon the waves, remind us of your calming presence in our lives. Enable us to trust you are with us on our journey, and that we need not be afraid to take your gospel on board and to share it with those to whom you send us on the other side. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.