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Saturday, 20 February 2010

Temptation

It's difficult, isn't it?
There you are being offered a box of chocolates, and you simply can't resist!
Or it's late, and you're tired, and it's a whole lot easier to get a take-away than to cook supper.
Or you're in the supermarket, and there's a wonderful-looking cheese-encrusted loaf that seriously calls your name....
or they have a special offer, buy one and get one free, on Ginsters' Cornish Pasties.

And if you need to watch your weight as much as I do,
you'll know these aren't totally great food choices!
But they are sometimes very tempting ones!

Okay, so eating the wrong sort of food can scarcely be called a sin!
It might be preferable to nibble on grapes rather than buying Lindt truffle eggs at 50p a throw, but that’s all!

But sometimes we find it easy to be tempted to do wrong.
Perhaps we're tempted to use our bodies in the wrong way,
or worse, to misuse other people's bodies.
Or to misuse other people full stop –
Jesus reminded us that if we were angry with someone,
we needed to express our anger in such a way that it didn't destroy the other person, or put them down.
Jesus tells us that we are to treat other people with the greatest possible respect for who they are –
physically, emotionally and spiritually.
And the rest of the New Testament makes it clear that we aren't even supposed to think unkind things about other people,
which it's very hard to do at times!
We can be tempted, too, not to get involved when a friend needs help or a listening ear;
we can be tempted to ignore it when someone in the church is in difficulties.
We can be tempted to steal –
even a few minutes' of our employers' time to make a personal phone call or answer a personal e-mail.
Although, of course, most employers do allow a reasonable amount of that, but not all.

And some poor folk are addicted to things, drink or drugs or gambling or cigarettes or something –
and it's terribly hard for them to resist the temptation to indulge their habit.
I know –
I'm addicted to cigarettes.
Oh, I've not smoked for almost exactly 16 years, but I'm still addicted,
and one puff and I'd be back to 40 a day in no time at all.
On the other hand, I can claim no virtue for not being addicted to gambling –
it simply doesn't interest me and I've never seen the point!

Different people are tempted to different things.
I know that when I read today's Gospel,
I often wonder what the problem was –
what are these so-called temptations?
But to Jesus, they were very real, and very urgent.
He was being tempted to misuse his divine powers, to go for cheap glory rather than the way of the cross.

I don't know how many of you enjoy the Harry Potter books and films –
I love the books, although I’ve only seen a few of the films;
I do prefer reading to watching when it comes to fiction.
But sometimes, when I read about the way they use their wands, I wonder why they bother –
I mean, whatever is the point of using magic to draw the curtains, for instance;
can't they just pull them by hand or with a cord, like everybody else?
Jesus did miracles, sure, but they weren't like that.
They weren't just to avoid bother, or to get something more easily.
That's why it was wrong for him to turn the stones into bread –
it would have been a cheap magic trick and would have done nothing to enhance God's glory.

It must have been so insidious, mustn't it?
"Are you really the Son of God?
Why don't you prove it by making these stones bread?
You're very hungry, aren't you?
If you're the Son of God, you can do anything you like, can't you?
Surely you can make these stones into bread?
But perhaps you aren't the Son of God, after all...."
And so it would have gone on and on and on.

We read Luke's account, and it just sounds as though Jesus shook his head and said, "No, it's written: you shall not live by bread alone!"
But it can't have been that easy, can it?
If it were, it wouldn't have been worth worrying about.
It's like I have no interest in going to a casino,
or in playing games of chance –
it just isn't my scene, so I'm totally not virtuous if I don't do it!
But for someone who finds that sort of thing the most enormous fun, it must be enormously tempting:
"Oh, go on then;
you never know, you might win!
Just buy that scratchcard.... who knows, it might be the one!"
And so on.

Jesus was also tempted with riches and power beyond his wildest dreams –
at that, beyond our wildest dreams, if only he would worship the enemy.
We can sympathise with this particular temptation;
I'm sure we all would love to be rich and powerful!
But for Jesus, it must have been particularly subtle –
it would help him do the work he'd been sent to do!
Could he fulfil his mission without riches and power?
What was being God's beloved son all about, anyway?
Would it be possible to spread the message that he was beginning to realise he had to spread
if he was going to spend his life in an obscure and dusty part of the Roman empire?
And again, after prayer and wrestling with it, he finds the answer:
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Let the riches and power look after themselves;
the important thing was to serve God.
If that is right, the rest would follow.

And then the third temptation.
The view from the pinnacle of the Temple.
So high up.... by their standards,
like the top of the Canary Wharf tower would be to us.
"Go on then –
you're the Son of God, aren't you?
Throw yourself down –
your God will protect you!"
It's the Harry Potter temptation again, I think –
the temptation to show off, to use his powers like magic.
Yes, God would have rescued him, but:
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
That's not what it's about.
That would have been showing off.
That would have been misusing his divine powers for something rather spectacular.

You may remember that Jesus was similarly tempted on the Cross, he could have called down the legions from heaven to rescue him.
But he chose not to.
It wasn't about spectacular powers –
often, when Jesus did miracles, he asked people not to tell anybody.
He didn't want to be spectacular.
He'd learnt that his mission was to the people of Israel, probably even just the people of Galilee –
and the occasional outsider who needed him, like the Syro-Phoenician woman, or the Roman centurion –
and anything more than that was up to his heavenly Father.

And, obviously, if the "anything more" hadn't happened,
we wouldn't be here this morning!
But, at the time, that wasn't Jesus' business.
His business, as he told us, was to do the work of his Father in Heaven –
and that work, for now, was to be an itinerant preacher and healer, but not trying deliberately to call attention to himself.

In the world of Harry Potter, magic is sometimes used for personal comfort and to save time –
look at Mrs Weasley cooking by magic,
and Fred and George teasing Ron and Harry because they have to prepare the Christmas Brussels sprouts using a knife,
instead of just being able to wave their wands at them.
And Harry, on his 17th birthday, using magic to fetch his spectacles from the bedside table just because he could!

Jesus wasn't like that.
His powers weren't to be used to save him discomfort, even death.
They were only to be used at God's command,
to heal the sick,
raise the dead,
and cast out demons.
There were no short cuts.
He had to go to the Cross,
to walk the way of Calvary,
to be put to death.

Mind you, in the very end, so did Harry, of course.
You remember how he has to die,
and then has the choice whether or not to go back and save his world.
He had to die first, though.
He is a picture of Christ, dying for his world to be saved.
Rather like Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
But in our world, unlike in Harry’s,
there simply aren't any short-cuts.
Jesus couldn't use his powers for his own glory, his own comfort,
and certainly not to save his own life.

And we can't, either.
And I don't know about you, but sometimes I find the traditional things preachers tend to say about this story rather irritating.
They point out that temptation does go away if you don't give into it,
and that help is available to help us resist.
Well, yes –
if it's something like an addiction –
been there, done that, when I was giving up smoking,
and I know I couldn't possibly have done that without God's help.
And if there is time, we can often decide that we won't do whatever it is we are being tempted to do, whatever it is.
But far too often, the temptation to do or say the wrong thing happens so quickly,
there simply isn't time!
before you know it, you've snapped at someone,
or you've got engrossed in something at work and missed the train you'd earlier promised to catch.
Or whatever.

I'm not quite sure what you're supposed to do then....
except know that God does change us, slowly,
as we walk more and more in His way,
as we get more and more used to being His person all the time,
not just on Sundays or whenever we happen to think about.

Earlier, I said to the young people that it didn't matter much what Lenten discipline you chose as long as it was something to help you come nearer to Jesus, to become more Jesus' person.
And that's true for all of us.
This season of Lent is about becoming more and more Jesus' person.
We aren't required to be perfect –
although when we do mess up, we're required to try to put things right as far as possible.
But we are expected to be open to being made more and more perfect!

Jesus was tempted in ways that we may not be.
But we are all tempted, we all have our own weak spots.
Mine are different to yours, but I have them, and so do you.
But with God's help we can fight them,
we can gradually gain ground over them.
And Lent is a terrific time to increase our spiritual discipline to help us do just that.
Amen.

Children's Talk - Lent 1

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.
Lent is the time when we prepare for Easter.
But Easter is still a very long way away,
it isn't happening until April.
We get just over six weeks to prepare, which is quite a long time, really.
At Christmas, we only get four weeks,
can you remember what that time is called?

The thing about Lent is that it's traditionally been a time of fasting.
This means some kind of physical deprivation,
to help you with your spiritual preparation.
Some people find that not eating sweets, or meat, or fizzy pop –
booze if you're grown up –
or something like that helps them to be more spiritually aware,
and more ready to think about Jesus at Easter.

In my church, King's Acre, we don't have flowers in Lent,
to remind us that this is a special time.
And then we appreciate the Easter flowers all the more.
And in churches where they have different colours on the communion table or the minister's robes at different times of year,
during Lent and Advent it's purple.

This can be a good discipline, but of course it can just be done for the sake of doing it!
I don't know if any of you know the children's author, Noel Streatfield?
She wrote a lot of books for children,
the most famous of which is called Ballet Shoes.
Well, she and her sisters grew up about a hundred years ago,
and in their family, as in many others,
it was assumed that nobody would want to eat sweets or cake or jam during Lent, so they were never served!
So even if you had wanted to eat them, you couldn't have done so.
And I don't really see what good that did, as it wasn't a voluntary thing,
and just made the children dread Lent each year.

My mother used to say that if you give up something for Lent,
you ought to put the money you save aside,
and give it to Children in Need or a similar charity,
so that you aren't just doing it for yourself.
She has a point!

Some people take on something extra during Lent.
Perhaps they go to a study group, or read a bit of the Bible every day,
or spend time visiting someone who isn't well, or something.
Or maybe you could do something like remembering to say "Thank you" to God for something every day.
One year I did that; every day, I wrote on my blog something I felt thankful for.
It was surprisingly difficult to do, too, to find something different to say “Thank you” to God about every day.
I’m doing it again this year, but it really isn’t easy.

The thing is, it doesn't really matter what Lenten discipline you choose, as long as it's something that helps you come nearer to Jesus.
If it doesn't, don't do it!

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Glimpses of Glory

Our broadband was down the day I was preparing this, so I wasn't able to save a copy in the "as written" format; this is the formatting I use when I'm actually preaching, as it's easier to read ahead and not sound as if I'm reading it!

Readings
Old Testament: Exodus 34:29-35
Gospel: Luke 9:28-43

I wonder how many of you are going to be hooked on the Winter Olympics,
which started in Canada yesterday?
I know we’ll be watching a lot, especially the ice-skating,
and even more especially the ice dancing, which is our sport.
The athletes are going out for their moment of glory.
I know what it is like –
not the Olympics, of course, but lesser competitions.
You spend hours and hours choreographing your routine –
Robert and I have been doing that just this morning –
and practising it.
You focus on the tiniest of movements –
an arm here, a leg there –
to make it look exactly right.
On the day, you spend a long time getting dressed
and putting make-up on,
and glitter,
and everything to make sure that when you are out there on the ice you look fantastic
and you skate your best.
It is your moment of glory,
the reward of all the months of training,
day in, day out,
that you’ve put into it.

But while you are training,
there are great long periods of time when nothing much seems to happen,
when the routine feels as though it’s an end in itself rather than a means to an end.
There are long months when the competitions feel a long way away
and you are plodging on, seeming to make no progress whatsoever.
And then suddenly someone says how much you’ve improved,
or you suddenly realise how much more you can do than when you were preparing for this competition last year,
and it all feels worth while again.

But isn’t it the same with our Christian lives, too?
We plod on, dutifully using what John Wesley called “The means of grace”,
that is, the Sacrament,
public worship,
the Scriptures,
prayer and so on,
and yet nothing seems to happen. 
Sometimes it feels as though our relationship with God is all down to us, not to God,
and doubts set in. 
But then, just sometimes, God breaks in and we get a glimpse of his glory. 
I know that has happened to me, and I hope it has happened to you.
 
In our readings today, various people get glimpses of God’s glory.
 
Firstly, Moses and the Israelites. 
Moses is spending time in the mountains with God. 
This passage is set shortly after that infamous episode with the golden calf,
and I think the authors are trying to emphasize that it is God, Yahweh, who is in charge,
not Moses, not a golden calf, nor anybody else. 
So Moses’ face shines when he has been in God’s presence, as he is speaking with God’s authority. 
The Israelites caught a glimpse of God’s glory. 
And we are told that Moses did, too;
he was allowed to see just the tiniest shadow of the back of God –
as though God had a human form, but then, he was told,
he couldn’t see the face of God as he wouldn’t live through the experience. 
Nobody can, nobody except Jesus. 
We can only come to God through Jesus;
more of that in a minute. 
The Israelites could only see God’s glory reflected in Moses’ face, and it scared them. 
Moses, who hadn’t at all realised anything was different,
had to put a veil over his face while he was among them, so as not to scare them.
 
The New Testament reading set for today, which we didn’t read,
points out that Moses was able to take the veil off, eventually, because the glory faded. 
Moses was back among the people, involved in the every-day tasks of running the Exodus,
and gradually the glimpse of glory that he had had,
and that he had passed on to the Israelites,
faded.
 
Okay, fast-forward several hundred years to the time of Christ.
This time, it is Jesus who is going up the mountain and he asks his friends James, Peter and John to go with him.
I don't know whether Jesus knew what was going to happen,
only that it was going to be something rather different and special,
and he wanted some moral support!
And so the four friends go up the mountain -
and suddenly things get rather confused for a time,
and when it stops being confused,
there is Jesus in shining white robes talking to Moses and Elijah.
 
Peter, of course, babbles on about building shelters,
but more to reassure himself that he exists, I think, than for any other reason.
And then the voice from heaven saying "This is my Son, listen to Him".
In other words, Jesus is more important than either Moses or Elijah, who were the two main people, apart from God, in the Jewish faith.
To good Jews, as James, Peter and John were, this must have almost felt like blasphemy.
No wonder Jesus told them to keep their big mouths shut until the time was right,
or he'd have been stoned for a blasphemer forthwith.

 Peter, for one, remembered this momentous day until the end of his life.
Years and years later, he -
or someone writing in his name -
was to write:
"For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.
For he received honour and glory from God the Father
when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, `This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven,
while we were with him on the holy mountain."
 
For Peter, James and John, it was to be proof that Jesus is the Messiah, and through all the turbulent times that followed they must have held on to the memory of that tremendous day, when they saw a glimpse of God’s glory in Jesus.
 
But they, too, had to come down from the mountainside and carry on,
and immediately they are confronted with a crisis:
a child who has been brought to the disciples for healing, but nothing has happened. 
In this version of the story, Jesus sounds almost cross –
well, you can’t blame him, can you? 
He was probably tired after being on the mountain,
and rather wanting a quiet supper and his bed,
and now the disciples were all talking at once, explaining how they’d tried to cast out this demon,
and the boy’s father is adding to the confusion, and yadda, yadda, yadda….. 
Basically, back to normal! 
We know from other accounts of this story that afterwards Jesus tells the disciples that they can only cast out that sort of demon with prayer and possibly fasting. 
 
So it seems that glimpses of God’s glory are very rare, and the normal gritty, hum-drum, everyday life is the norm. 
And that’s as it should be. 
You can’t live on a mountain-top all the time, you’d get altitude sickness! 
If you were on holiday all the time, you wouldn’t appreciate the rest and relaxation that being on holiday brings. 
It’s not much fun waking up and knowing you have no work to go to and, when you get up, the big excitement of the day will be deciding what to have for supper! 
We are never quite sure where God is in all of this. 
 
But God is there. 
Those very special glimpses of his glory, such as Moses saw,
such as Peter, James and John saw, are just that:
special.  They happen maybe once or twice in a lifetime, if that. 
But God is there, acting, working in our lives, even if we don’t always recognise Him.
 
Like the story my father tells of the time there was a big flood, and people had to climb up on to the roofs of their houses to escape.
One guy thought this was a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate, so he thought, God’s power, so he prayed “Dear Lord, please come and save me.”

Just then, someone came past in a rowing-boat and said “Climb in, we’ll take you to safety!”

“Oh, no thank you,” said our friend, “I’ve prayed for God to save me, so I’ll just wait for Him to do so.”

And he carried on praying, “Dear Lord, please save me!”

Then along came the police in a motor-launch, and called for him to jump in, but he sent them away, too, and continued to pray “Dear Lord, please save me!”

Finally, a Coastguard helicopter came and sent down someone on a rope to him, but he
still refused,
claiming that he was relying on God to save him.

And half an hour later, he was swept away and drowned.

So, because he was a Christian, as you can imagine, he ended up in Heaven,
and the first thing he did when he got there
was go to to the Throne of Grace, and say to God,
“What do you mean by letting me down like this?
I prayed and prayed for you to rescue me, and you didn’t!”

“My dear child,” said God, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter –
what more did you want?”
 
When we pray for someone to be healed, quite often we want to see God intervening spectacularly, like the disciples expected to see with the boy with a demon from today’s reading. 
But most often what happens is that the person gets well slowly, with or without medical intervention. 
After all, if you think of it, there’s a limit to what medicine can do. 
My father had his hip replaced a few years ago, and I was amazed to learn that, when he came home from hospital a week later, he no longer needed a dressing on the wound. 
It had healed up really fast. 
“Aren’t surgeons amazing!” he said, and, indeed, they are. 
But all they could do, no matter how experienced, was sew up the wound, and encourage it to heal –
they can’t actually make the flesh grow back together again.
That has to be left to natural processes –
or is it God? 
 
I believe God is involved in healing, whether it is by direct, supernatural intervention,
or, more usually, through the normal processes of one’s immune system,
aided by medical or surgical intervention when necessary. 
But those glimpses of glory that I started with –
when you realise that you are making progress in your chosen sport or hobby, or when you are out there competing –
I believe those times, too, are from God.
 
I think, then, that what I want to leave with you today is this:
as we go into Lent,
which is a time when we are apt to think about God, and our relationship with Him,
perhaps a little more deeply than at other times of the year,
let’s be on the lookout for touches of God in our everyday lives. 
They don’t have to be spectacular, they probably won’t be. 
But each of them is a little glimpse of glory.  Amen.