Monday, 27 February 2012

A hellish place, or a place of discovery?

Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Lent:  Gen 9:8-17; 1 Peter3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

My father lives in the desert of Phoenix, Arizona, a land with just two seasons:  hot and hotter.  Their winter is like an English summer, with temperatures in the 70’s, but in summer Phoenix becomes a hellish place, and the people stay indoors with the air conditioning on to survive the heat (that is, if they can afford air conditioning).

Our gospel reading today got me thinking about what it would be like to live in the desert for 40 days.  Jesus was ‘sent’ into the desert by the Spirit – it wasn’t as if he knew what he was there for, or chose to go with a sense of purpose.  So for a start, it would probably be for us a bit like being blindfolded and plonked in the middle of the Mojave or the Sahara.  What would you do? 

You’d probably first want to remove your blindfold, and then maybe you’d begin wandering around.  It wouldn’t take long before the whole ‘focus of your being’ would be on how thirsty you’ve become.  It’s getting difficult to swallow.  Your lips cake up and stick to your teeth and begin to crack and even to bleed.  For Jesus, this experience is in direct contrast with the full-immersion baptism he had just undergone; we can imagine Jesus there in the desert, casting his mind back to the cool, clear water of the Jordan embracing him – refreshing water, cleansing and thirst-quenching. 

But here in the desert, there’s not a drop to drink. And dehydration plays all kinds of tricks on the mind. What easy prey Jesus could have been for Satan’s tempting suggestions.  Our gospel writer says he was with ‘wild animals’, too, and I don’t think he meant harmless little lizards or meercats. Some writers suggest that the wild animals were caring for Jesus alongside the angels, but I don’t think so.  In Isaiah 11 it is prophesied that one day ‘the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them’, but I don’t think that day has yet arrived. The picture that Mark was sketching out here was that this wilderness was ‘a hellish place’.  And in this bleak and miserable environment, the ground seemed only fertile for the germination of fear and desperation.

The story in Mark is typically short, but we have the devil in the detail provided by Matthew and Luke.  “If you are the Son of God”, says the Tempter, “tell these stones to become bread.  If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from this temple.  I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour, if you’ll bow down and worship me.”  Essentially, after 40 days of fasting in the desert, in his weakness Jesus is tempted to sway from his path and true purpose. 

For us, the 40 days of the season of Lent provides time to consider what it is that tempts us from following our path and true purpose.  And many of us try to discipline ourselves at this time from common temptations that affect many people; temptations like:  spending money as a way to comfort yourself, even if you’re already in debt; drinking too much alcohol or eating too much as a way of dealing with your problems; spending too much time on the computer, to the neglect of family and friends; or simply focussing too much on your own comfort and security, while ignoring the needs of the wider community.  And if any of your temptations have become addictions, you aren’t alone, and you don’t need to struggle alone. There is help available – reach out, tell someone – tell me or tell Frank and we can get you to a place where there is help. 

As Jesus overcame his temptations, he went on to fulfil his earthly mission, ending with the cross and the resurrection and his ascension into heaven. And so the desert or the wilderness becomes transformed from its potential as a ‘hellish place’ to a place of discovery with the potential for growth.  ...Our second reading from Peter’s first letter says that the whole reason for the death and resurrection of Christ was ‘to bring us to God’.  And as Christians for centuries have testified, our own desert places, as difficult as they are while we’re in them, have the potential to bring us closer to God and closer to the awareness of what matters most in life. 

The theologian Karl Rahner movingly expresses this idea of the desert being a place of deep personal discovery of God when he says: 

Therefore Jesus goes into the desert, therefore he fasts; therefore he leaves behind everything else that a man needs even for bare existence, so that, for this once, not just in the depths of his heart but in the whole range of his being he can do and say what is the first and last duty of humankind – to find God, to see God, to belong to God to the exclusion of everything else that makes up human life. And therefore he fasts. Therefore through this cruelly hard act, this denial of all comfort, this refusal of food and drink, through the solitude and abandonment of the desert, through everything else that involves a rejection, a self-denial of the world and all earthly company, through all these he proclaims this fact: one thing only is necessary: that I be with God, that I find God, and everything else, no matter how great or beautiful, is secondary and subordinate and must be sacrificed, if needs be, to this ultimate movement of heart and spirit.

But this ‘finding’ of God in our personal desert regions doesn’t end there; for we who have been through the waters of baptism, who are possessed by the Holy Spirit, are inevitably then also led back into the world and into its wilderness places, where Jesus calls us to turn toward the broken, the hurting and the lonely.  Because as one contemporary thinker puts it:  ‘that's where Jesus hangs out’.  That’s where Jesus calls us – to feed the hungry, to visit those who are, in many ways, imprisoned, and to speak hope to the hopeless.

Did you know there are at least 27 million people worldwide who are captive in slavery today?  There’s a new UK-based initiative (called, appropriately enough, “27 Million”), that aims to raise awareness for these people, many of whom are children, who are enslaved for the purposes of sex or for labour.  For most of us it is difficult to face the reality of this – just imagine what life is like for these people.  But we don’t have to feel helpless about it – there are ways to help.  These people need someone to stand up for them.  This is where the living water needs to be shared – in the deserts of life.  And as we reach out and get out hands dirty, the ‘hellish places’ become places of discovery and growth not only for ourselves but also for others.

If you look carefully in the desert you can discover some amazing displays of life.  Just the other day I read about scientists finding what they called ‘a microbial oasis’ living in the extreme conditions of the Atacama desert in Chile.  Many plants have adapted to make the most of the desolate regions of the world.  There’s an entire ecosystem organised around the conditions of life in the desert.  Nature works with what it has, it hasn’t got a choice – and everything is inter-connected.

As individuals and as communities we have choices when it comes to how we live. We can chose to separate ourselves from those who are different from us, whom we might consider scary or even ‘unclean’; or we can recognise our inter-connectedness with others, that what we do affects others; and what happens to others, affects us. With this view, we realise our daily choices matter – what we choose to eat and drink, what we choose to spend our money on and how we spend our time, and how we deal with the daily temptations of life, all of this really does matter. 

God said to Noah that his covenant is between God and every living creature.  In 1 Peter the apostle says that Christ died ‘once for all’.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus emerges from his baptism and heads straight into the desert, and then emerges from the desert to proclaim the good news:  the time has come; the kingdom of God is near!   Whatever Lenten disciplines you observe, may they help you to discover the nearness of the kingdom.  And when you go through the desert, as we all do at times, may you discover the strength that comes from Jesus, and may you be thoroughly refreshed by His living water, which is ultimately all that anyone needs.   Amen. 

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Power to the Grasshoppers!

Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  The Everlasting God will give us strength and power, and his kingdom has no end.  Trust in God, not in worldly princes or rulers.  Remember who you are and remember who God is.  We’re going to look at Isaiah 40:21-31 (if you have a church bible, it’s at the bottom of page 724).  This passage is empowering - not only does it give us confidence in God’s strength, it also gives us confidence that God will strengthen us:  v. 31 - ‘those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint’.  Such wonderful encouragement, especially when we’re struggling in a place of weakness in our life.

A few verses earlier, in verse 6, the poet-prophet writes ‘all people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.  ...The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands for ever’.  We are like grass, aren’t we? – When the sun shines, we’re happy, but when the heat is on, we wither!  Human life is fragile and short.  We’re like grass.  And then in Isaiah 40:22 we are likened as grasshoppers. Have you ever thought of yourself as a grasshopper?  Grasshoppers are relatively small; and grasshoppers have little wings to help them flit randomly from one thing to another.  But here’s God’s consolation:  in verse 31 he says, ‘They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint’.  God’s power and strength are promised to us.  An eagle is a big step up from a grasshopper!

This passage helps us remember who God is, and who we are in relation to God.  And when we recognise ourselves as being small and fragile, like grass or like a grasshopper, and we acknowledge God as being quite big – after all, he made the whole universe – to hold on to this perception of humanity and of God is quite a healthy and appropriate thing for us to do.  Because thinking about God as immeasurable, powerful, inexhaustible and everlasting – and about ourselves as small and limited – frees us; we can travel lighter, be more like Jesus – humble, but not a doormat – free from the need to measure up to other people’s expectations, free to quietly seek God’s will; to allow God to refresh us, and to do what God asks of us, to focus our life simply on that.  It frees us from the futility of striving for success and power; it frees us from the foolish grasping for status.

Nations rise and nations fall; princes and rulers are nothing:  Earthly governments are as fragile as newly planted grass – the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Soviet Empire, the German Empire, the USA, and now the up-and-coming China – their power has never been a threat to God.  The Arab Spring – the power struggles in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen – there is no threat to God’s kingdom in all of this.  The rise and fall of Political parties – I take a keen interest in the show currently going on in the US Republican primaries.  In TIME magazine, Fidel Castro, the retired Cuban leader, has offered his views on that, calling it “the greatest competition of idiocy and ignorance that has ever been”. 

Here in Britain – the rise and fall of Bankers and Politicians: the former Royal Bank of Scotland CEO Fred Goodwin stripped of his knighthood after he led the RBS into the world’s largest bailout of £45.5 billion.  Chris Huhne resigning from his cabinet post to deal with the charge of ‘perverting the course of justice’.  Political parties, politicians, bankers and corporations are no threat to the kingdom of God.  And in the wise words of Psalm 146, we are cautioned, ‘Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save’ – trust in God alone. 

Brueggemann, writing on Isaiah, says that “in our own time, it’s not very difficult to identify as ‘Babylon’ the global system of consumer capitalism that seems to sweep all before it, so that it has the power through its relentless “liturgy” (that is, advertising) to tell us what is possible.  The struggle for women and men of faith now, as always, is to be able to imagine our life out beyond the system that seems totally... encompassing.  ...It’s an act of boldness [re-imagine and reinterpret] life in terms of God, the creator who brings to nought both the wonders of creation and the pretenders of politics.  It is easy for people of faith to conclude that the creator God is an irrelevance in a contemporary system that seems... set in stone.  [Isaiah], however, will not permit such a verdict. The very God taken to be obsolete is the One who governs and gives strength, who makes it possible for life to be taken up again without the force of empire.  ...this One [overrides] the nothingness offered by imperial task masters.”

Whenever Jesus took himself off to pray in solitude, as he does in our gospel reading in Mark 1:29-39, he returns refreshed, re-committed, and re-focused on his mission.  And out of that, he’s given the strength to say ‘no’ when something is asked of him that doesn’t align with what the Father asks of him.  In Capernaum he worked many miracles of healing and the people wanted him to stay, but staying wasn’t part of God’s plan, and the time Jesus spent in prayer confirmed that.  It was time to go. Of course he disappointed those who wanted him to stay, but as a result of his moving on, the Kingdom of God grew. And that kind of insight is available to us as we’re called to prayer and enabled to move forward in the service of the Kingdom of God that continues to break in to our world. A good discipline we might consider then, would be to wake up each morning and say, ‘God how can I be useful in your kingdom today’? 

I showed a video at our mid-week communion service here last Thursday where the message was about letting go of the things we hold onto in our lives, those things that distract us from ‘the one thing’ – what God is calling us to.  We often say ‘yes’ to all kinds of obligations that keep us from focusing on what really matters.  But if we’re serious about following Jesus, what really matters is that our lives contribute to the building up of God’s kingdom, by accepting God’s strength and God’s power that’s given to us so that, like Simon’s mother-in-law, we might rise up from the fever of life to  serve God.

But maybe we’re like Jacob and Israel, in Isaiah 40:27, complaining that God doesn’t notice us or doesn’t care about us or isn’t able to do anything to save us or help us?  The answer given in vv. 28-31 is that God is continually working for us, tirelessly, endlessly.  And so we can either sink in our cynicism while holding on to false securities, or we can live in hope and expectation that God moves powerfully, among us and within us.  God’s power and energy is here – we simply need to trust. 

Sometimes amidst life’s struggles it can feel like we’re distant from God, in a kind of spiritual exile.  Or with this economy perhaps we’re in an economic exile, where we’re unfairly separate from those in a higher income bracket.  When life’s at its most difficult, we can lose perspective. We can lose sight of the trees for the forest. That’s when we most need to remember: the creator of the universe knows our situation. God understands our fears, our hopes, our dreams, and our pains. God’s wisdom is unsearchable, and God’s power is unmatched. Remember who you really belong to, and rest in God’s holy presence. Do you not know?  Have you not heard? Look at the world around you - look up at the stars, on these cold and clear nights - and receive the gift of perspective. God is vast, and we are small, and God is holding us in the palm of his hand.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012


I've been thinking a lot about leadership lately.  I'm writing an essay on church discipline and its relevance in the 21st century church, and of course the leader of a church has a role in that.  There have been some interesting online debates recently about church discipline - if you're interested take a look at Matthew Paul Turner's blog.

But my thoughts on leadership have been much wider than just church discipline, and it seems I'm not the only one who is thinking a lot about 21st century church leadership lately (see Mike Friesen's blog here, here and here, for instance).

In my research for this essay I've found some great books, which I highly recommend: 

The Fourfold Leadership of Jesus, by Andrew Watson, an Anglican vicar;

7 Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership by Kate Coleman, a Baptist minister;

Post-Christendom:  Church and Mission in a Strange New World by Stuart Murray, an Anabaptist and overseer of Urban Expression, a pioneering urban church planting agency;

and Leadership:  a Critical Text by Simon Western, a Quaker, and the Director of Coaching at the Management School, Lancaster University.

At this point in my curacy (in my final year) I'm reflecting a lot on what kind of leader I want to be and what kind of leader God wants me to be.  I'm thinking about what kind of leadership style I'm inclined towards, and how I might need to push beyond my natural comfort zones to really go where God wants to take me in terms of leading a church as an incumbent.  It's quite exciting, really.  This is such an interesting time in Christianity in the west.  Interesting and very challenging. 

I quite like it that the books listed above, the ones I really got a lot out of, are written by people from four different traditions.  One thing I warmed to about all four books is their common emphasis on the need for collaboration and community.  The 21st century does not take well to domineering, heirarchical leadership, but a multi-voiced, sensitive, listening, serving and enabling kind of leadership is what many are calling for, with vision, attentive to the Spirit. Bring it on!