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Sunday, 17 February 2013


Um, yes; this actually is very like the sermon I preached on this Sunday in 2010, which was in turn very like the one I preached in 2007.... I do recycle my sermons, with tweaks, unless it appears not to be what's wanted!

It's difficult, isn't it?
On Thursday I spent the day, as I usually do on Thursdays, looking after my grandson.
He and his family have just moved house, and there is a Homebase quite literally three minutes' walk from where they live,
and I wanted to go there as I wanted to buy some anti-mould stuff my daughter had been recommending.
The trouble is, they also had a lovely display of Malteaster Bunnies...
so of course I had to buy a pack of mini-Bunnies to share with the family, didn't I?

And how often do we get tempted to buy stuff like that – it might not be sweets, but very often, the kind of food the supermarket has on special offer, or on BOGOF, is the kind of food that is very tempting, but not very good for you.

Okay, so eating the wrong sort of food can scarcely be called a sin!
It might not be very kind to horses, we've been learning this week, and it might not be very good for us, 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 don't yet know the truth about what happened between Oscar Pistorious and his girlfriend in South Africa, but it does seem as though someone lost their temper and things went tragically wrong.
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.

Some people like to make a quick profit at the expense of their ethics – again, that has come very clear from the horsemeat scandal.

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 about 20 years –
19, I think, to be accurate –
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.

Do people still 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 online or with others –
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!
They're offering £20 free if you sign up!"
And so on.
I do think, by the way, that the constant ads for on-line betting sites must be really, really difficult if you are addicted to gambling –
and make no mistake, it can be a very real addiction,
one that can and has destroyed families.

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,
or Fred and George teasing Ron and Harry because they have to prepare the Christmas Brussels sprouts the way we do, 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, or 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.

I have often said that it doesn't matter much what Lenten discipline you chose as long as it is something to help you come nearer to Jesus,
to become more Jesus' person.
Perhaps you will be coming to the Lent study groups tonight, and other Sunday evenings in Lent.
One friend has been challenged to spend ten minutes a day, just ten minutes, in God's presence –
not praying, not confessing her sins or thanking God for anything, just sitting quietly in God's presence.
I read an article which suggested that perhaps someone suffering from anorexia should be challenged to eat chocolate every day.
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.
He was enabled to resist, not because he was divine, but because he trusted God.
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 as we learn to trust God more an more, so we can gradually gain more and more ground over them.
And Lent is a terrific time to increase our spiritual discipline to help us do just that.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Ash Wednesday Reflections


Good evening, and welcome to this Ash Wednesday service. Tonight, we are going on a journey. We are going to start when it all went horribly wrong, right back at the very beginning. Then we will travel via God's plan for putting it all right again, and how that worked out, to get to the place where we put ourselves right with one another in a celebration of the Peace, and there will be an opportunity to receive the Ashes as a sign that we wish to be right with God, and then finally we will celebrate the ultimate closeness to God in the reception of Holy Communion.

Let us pray:
Father God, be with us and bless us on our journey together this evening. Help us to be aware of your love for us, and your presence with us, and lead us to a new level of closeness to you. In Jesus' name. Amen.

So we begin with our first reading, that tells us how it all went wrong.

Reflection 1 (Genesis 3:1-13)

And that's the story we tell to explain why our relationship with God went all pear-shaped.

The man and the woman did the one thing they were specifically asked not to do, eating the fruit from the one tree they were told not to touch. “If we eat it, we'll die,” the woman explained to the serpent. And indeed, in the end, death came into the world because they ate it. It was not immediately poisonous, but it poisoned their relationship with God. They hid from him, and couldn't face up to him.

Well, okay, Adam and Eve in the garden is only a story, but on another level it is profoundly true. We still question “Did God really say?” We still think we know better than God. We still find our relationship with God is sometimes poisoned. We hide from God, because we know we've done something that we ought not to have done, or because we have let ourselves down in some way or another. We have not lived up to our own standards, whether or not these are God's standards, or self-imposed.

And no matter where we are in our journey towards God today – whether we are far away or really close – we are probably not yet perfect.

So as we take our first steps on this journey, let us sing together “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”.

Reflection 2: Galatians 4:1-7

Although the Man and the Woman had to leave the Garden of Eden, God didn't abandon them. Really quite the reverse. Genesis tells us that God showed them how to make clothes from skins, so much warmer than the fig-leaves they had managed with until then.

The rest of the Old Testament tells us of God's dealings with His people, specifically with the Israelites, who we are told are His chosen race. But over and over and over again they fail at being God's people. They find it so much easier to worship other gods, gods who don't demand more than ritual in worship, gods who don't expect you to follow them when you're not actually engaged in worship. They don't want to follow a God who is actually interested in who they are and what they do – that is too difficult, too intrusive. And eventually the inevitable happens, and most of the Kingdom of Israel is conquered by other peoples, never to be seen again. Even the Kingdom of Judah, the remnant, is taken into exile for a time, but eventually returns to Israel.

And by New Testament times, they were the People of the Law. They knew that God had set out written rules and regulations about how you were to live your life, and over the centuries their scholars and teachers had endeavoured to explain what the various laws meant, and how you should keep them. They had really become burdensome and, worse still, they were beginning to replace the ideal of a two-way relationship with God that had been God's plan from the foundation of the world.

And so God sent his Son, born of a woman, to free us from the law and from sin. And we will be enabled to become children of God.

Our next song is “Oh Lord, the clouds are gathering.”

Reflection 3: Romans 5:6-11

St Paul, I always feel, has a knack of putting things into words. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The point is, we don't have to get perfect before Christ accepts us and loves us. We are already forgiven; all we have to do is to accept that forgiveness. We are not responsible for our own salvation. I'll repeat that: we are not responsible for our own salvation. All too often, we talk of “being saved by faith”, as though it was something we do. No, our faith doesn't save us – Jesus saves us! Yes, we need to acknowledge this, to own it for ourselves, of course we do. But while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us. It was all God's idea, not ours!
The worship group will sing “I am the God that healeth thee”; do join in if you know it, or sit quietly and listen if you don't.

Introduction to the Peace

So, on our journey, we have come to the place where we need to make God's love and forgiveness a reality in our own lives. And, as much as anything, this involves getting right with other people. Jesus told us, you remember, that if we knew someone was at outs with us, we should make things right before even worshipping God. So we are going to take a few moments to wish one another God's peace, and then the worship group will sing again as we prepare for the liturgy of the Ashes.

Final Reflection: Hebrews 10:19-23

Confidence! We may enter God's presence with confidence, since we know that we are right with God. It is not because we are perfect, but because we are forgiven. It's not because we love God, but because God loves us. So, dear brothers and sisters, Nadine is now going to lead us in prayer as we celebrate the Lord's Supper together.