Monday, 7 February 2011

Sermon from 6th February 2011, preached at Eyke and Tunstall

Readings: Isaiah 58.1-12; Matthew 5.13-20

I was reading through a book of The Times Best Sermons, which might sound like dry reading, except they are the BEST sermons, and the first of them in the book is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

The reading today is from almost the beginning of the famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus went up the mountain and from there spoke to his disciples, and crowds of people gathered to hear him.

The Gospel readings for the next four Sundays continue the teaching Jesus gave the disciples and the people that day on the mountain, so that before Lent we will have heard most of the Sermon on the Mount.

By the time Jesus gave this teaching, he was beginning to gain a reputation throughout Galilee, preaching the good news of the Kingdom and healing those with all kinds of diseases.

And so when he had the crowd there, he taught them just what was meant by ‘the Kingdom of God’. And over the next few weeks we will be reminded of the images Jesus used to help his listeners understand just what he meant. …to help US understand.

These are the workaday people Jesus is talking to, including the disciples.
Not the priests from the temple or the Roman occupying forces, or anybody with any kind of power or influence. And Jesus’ words can be understood as either encouraging or frustrating, or both.

He praises them - “you are the salt of the earth”, but warns them to stay “salty”, or they won’t do any good.
He praises them again - “You are the light of the world”, but warns them, “let your light shine!” Not to gain praise for themselves, but to point others towards God.

We had a holiday in Wales some years ago, and went inside a mountain, into what used to be a slate mine but now there are tourist trips inside it. There is nowhere darker than the inside of a mountain. Imagine being in such darkness, and imagine Jesus as one single bright light in that dark place… Then imagine a million tiny mirrors attached to the walls of the dark place… and how much lighter it would be with mirrors reflecting back the light.
WE are each to be one of those mirrors, reflecting His light.

Jesus reassures the disciples and the crowds that he has not come to abolish the Law, the Law of Moses, that is, or go against the prophets. Quite the opposite - Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law and the prophets.
He has not come to take any of that away, but to add to it. That which went before was incomplete, and Jesus is the missing piece which completes the picture.

In the King James Version of the Bible the verse about the Scripture, verse 18, is translated: “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”

This is a much more expressive term than the ‘strokes of a letter’ in the translation we’re given on the pew sheets. The jots and tittles were the tiniest marks in the Hebrew alphabet, like accents, showing how words were to be pronounced, and not one of the tiny marks is to be overlooked - Jesus has not come to take away the demands of the Law, but to reinterpret them.

He has a harsh comment about the religious teachers of his day, the scribes and Pharisees, who had a tendency to consider themselves more ‘righteous’ than others. They represent the lowest level of righteousness. Jesus wants his followers to aim higher.
What is righteousness? It is mentioned many times in the Bible. But it is difficult to pin down.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians (6.14) tells his congregation there to “put on the breastplate of righteousness”.

It isn’t a new concept: Habakkuk 2.4 states “the righteous will live by his faith”. As opposed to living by trickery and arrogance. The righteous will live by faith.

I trawled the internet to find a definition of righteousness, and one preacher had written, “It is very simple. It just means doing what is right.”

But that is not satisfactory at all. The scribes and the Pharisees did what was right by the Law. They followed it in all its jots and tittles.

The real definition of righteousness is in our OT reading today. The book of Isaiah is one of the longest in the Bible, I think only Psalms is longer.

And the thread running through all of the 66 chapters of Isaiah is a call for justice for those who have nobody to speak for them. Righteous indignation on their behalf, if you like.
Jesus quoted verses from Isaiah chapter 61, the first couple of verses, just a few chapter after the reading today, when he first preached in the synagogue in Nazareth:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.” (Luke 4.18-19)

This was the manifesto for the Messiah foretold by the prophet Isaiah. One full of righteousness - but not the self-righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees - instead a holy righteousness reflecting God’s care for those who have nobody to care for them. The righteousness of attitude towards injustice, that moves someone to look beyond self-serving actions and to act in ways that might not be good for them at all, but do serve the greater good.

And if we do something that might seem odd to our friends and families, because we believe it is the right thing in God’s eyes, how do we deal with the consequences?
Depending on the circles we move in there could be questions, nagging, even ridicule…?? That may be more difficult to deal with than doing the right thing in the first place.
When Paul was telling the Ephesians about the breastplate of righteousness, he wrote: “put on the full armour of God, so that you may be able to stand your ground.”

The breastplate of righteousness may be invisible, but it can still be there. Christians should be used to invisible signs. When we are baptised the sign of the cross is made on our foreheads. It is invisible, but it was made, and its significance is real even without a visible mark.

So is the armour of God. Put it on so we can stand our ground.

What Jesus said was not new.

Isaiah had been writing the same message, centuries before Jesus lived on earth.

What was the reaction of people to what Jesus said?
What is the reaction of people today to what Jesus said?

Much the same, I would guess. Those who were there, those fortunate people who hear the words from Jesus’ own mouth, were spellbound at the time. But how many held to what he said after they had all dispersed?

What Jesus said was not new, but he taught it in a new way. He taught about JOYFUL self-sacrifice for the good of others, and being sure that our daily lives reflect the religion we practise on Sundays.

When we have the nerve to follow in the way Jesus appeals to us, then amazing things can happen.

I have a friend back in Northamptonshire who is a retired schools inspector. While she was still working she had to go to Nepal to inspect a British school there, and made connections with some Nepali Christians there. Later, after returning to the UK she found herself with a burden for the church she had met in Nepal, and this verse from Isaiah was the inspiration for what came next.
Isaiah 58.10: If you spend yourself on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness.

What had impressed her was the way these Christians served each other. There were several orphaned children, and no state support of any kind out there, and the church kept the children, and the congregation, who live on the bread-line anyway, would fast on Sundays and bring the food they would have eaten to the children’s home. That kept the children fed for the week, until the following Sunday. These people were giving the food from their own mouths, not out of cupboards where they had plenty to spare. They gave, literally, of themselves.

Now, about 15 years later, there is a thriving church and a real children’s home, and also provision for widows, who, if they have no children to care for them, have to beg. They beg on the streets of Kathmandu.

These ideals of justice and care are God’s ideals.

If God matters to us, if our faith means anything to us, then we have to take these things seriously.

We are to be salt, not bland. Salt is distinctive. We are to be distinctive.

We are to be light - trustworthy, honest.
Light is stronger than darkness. When the house is in darkness and someone turns on the landing light, the light comes through the crack in the door, not the darkness going out into the light.

Let's not hear these words and then turn from them. Too often the church turns from the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount, for it is challenging, and we sink too easily into conformist respectability. If we’re not careful we become difficult to tell apart from the world. We lose our saltiness. Our light becomes dim even without a bushel to hide it under.

In my trawl through the internet I came upon a story I like very much, which I would like to tell you. It is a very imaginary story about a cave all in darkness. The cave heard the sun calling to it, “Cave, come up here and see the light! Come and see the sunshine!”
The cave said, “What is that - I’ve never heard of light and sunshine.” And he wasn’t sure he wanted to go away from the darkness he knew. But the sun called again, and eventually the cave ventured up and was surprised to see light all around. He said to the sun, “Come down and I’ll show you the darkness.” And the sun went down with him, but when the sun went into the cave, there was no darkness.

If we all put on our lights and venture into the darkness, in faith, there would be no darkness. We are all called to be salt and light. You are salt and light. Let’s have the courage to be salty all week, every day. Let’s have the courage to shine a light for Jesus.
He is the reason we’re here, now.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Sermon for 21st March 2010 Fifth Sunday of Lent

Delivered at Eyke and Tunstall

Readings: Phil. 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8

This is the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Next Sunday will be Palm Sunday, and after that the pace hots up as Holy Week rolls on relentlessly towards the Cross on Good Friday.

A good time, then to reflect on Lent so far, the readings we’ve heard and what they mean.

It began with Jesus in the wilderness and the temptations - the way to begin our own time of discipline for Lent. I hope you’ve done better than I have with keeping to whatever you might have adopted as either ‘giving up’ or ‘taking on’ for Lent.

Did anybody actually memorise the verse from Psalm 91 I recommended back then? verse 2: “You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.” Well, there’s still time. He still is our refuge and stronghold, and he’s still there for us to put our trust in him. The Psalm is always worth taking home and reading, even if we don’t have it read in the service. The Psalms are a wonderful resource for us.

Then in week 2 there was the reading about the messy, bloody animal sacrifices when God came down to Abram’s level and sealed an agreement with him in a way Abram could understand. (Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18) And there was Jesus grieving over the state of Jerusalem, which he is surely still doing today. (Luke 13.31-35)

In week 3 we had the parable of the fruitless fig tree, which was given another chance when the gardener pleaded for it. (Luke 13.1-9) But the warning of judgement was there too.

Last week was the holiday from Lent that is Mothering Sunday, but even then, with the story of Moses in the bulrushes, and the Gospel telling of Simeon greeting Mary with her infant son in the Temple, there were hints of danger ahead. The wise old man, Simeon, after a lifetime of obedience to God working and praying in the Temple, knew that all would not go well all the time for the Messiah he recognised in the little baby he held in his arms.

Each week, there has been a contrast of light and shade, and this week is no exception.

Taking the epistle first: the extract from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Read the rest of the letter; it isn't very long. From the beginning it is clear that Paul loves these people. In some of his other letters to his other churches, he scolds and berates them in no uncertain terms, but not the church at Philippi. He says right at the start: “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy…” So instead of chiding them, Paul berates himself for his old ways, before he met with Christ and was converted.

He demonstrates that mix of humility and pride that does characterise his writing. Paul is proud of the fact that if anyone wants to get into some kind of macho contest over righteousness in Jewish tradition, he would win.

He’s got it all,

· from circumcision

· to full Jewish identity,

· Benjaminite lineage,

· knowledge and practice of Jewish law,

· training and identity as a Pharisee

· AND a persecutor of the church!

Paul ticks all the boxes!

But Paul’s encounter with Christ has led him to treat that entire heritage as “rubbish”. But the Greek word he uses in the original text is much earthier than that. It means not just rubbish, but dung or excrement. It is hard to overstate just how shocking this choice of words is here, or how offensive it must have been to the original readers, or those who heard the letter read, that Paul could so thoroughly insult and reject his original heritage.

But Paul isn’t worried about that as he writes. He has turned decisively
away from every aspect of his former identity and counted it as worthless. He has turned decisively towards a new identity. The one who fiercely persecuted the new Christian church has now come to value a relationship with Christ just as fiercely - this relationship is the entire purpose of his existence.

This complete about-turn is an example of real repentance. This is what the word repentance means: to turn around and take the opposite direction.

Before, his righteousness was of his own doing, by being blameless under the Law: knowing what all the rules were and sticking to them. His pride was in himself. He also knew that the Law made provision for impurities to be cleansed, transgressions forgiven, and therefore righteousness under the Law restored.

But now, having met Jesus and had his eyes quite literally opened to real righteousness, Paul sees that what he thought was righteousness was nothing. The right-ness that comes through faith in Jesus as our Saviour is what Paul now values above all else. He sees now that sharing Jesus’ experiences in life reassures him that he may also share in his experience of death and resurrection and eternal life with God.

Paul surrenders all that he valued before for the sake of his faith in Jesus Christ.

And thinking about lifestyle and the value of things brings us to the Gospel, where we hear about Jesus’ friend, Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, pouring hugely expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet. It would have been customary to wash the feet of a guest, but this was a gesture of enormous extravagance.

Where had Mary got this pure nard from? - an intensely aromatic, thick oil, made from a plant not native to the country (which probably accounted for its outrageous cost).

Was it a jar left over from when her brother Lazarus died? - this man that Jesus had brought alive out of the tomb after he had been dead in there for four days?

Whatever its original purpose, Mary takes a pound –a whole pound – of this thick, sweet stuff and slathers it on Jesus’ feet.

We give our most precious things, whether valuable in monetary or emotional terms, to those we love best, but this was more than that: Mary did this as an act of worship.

And then she wiped his feet with her hair! This was breaking social taboos on a scandalous scale.

A woman’s long, loose hair in mixed company?

And it’s such an intensely intimate and physical act! On her knees on the floor before him, bending low and close.

[Have you ever stroked anybody’s feet with your hair? Neither have I.] And when she’d finished, her hair would be damp and heavy with the scented oil; and Jesus’ feet would be glistening with it, and the smell would fill the whole house. (As the fragrance of the incense is filling the church now…)

Whatever the reactions of the others in the dinner party, Judas is the one recorded as commenting first. He criticises the injustice of the act. Think of the poor who could have been fed for what that perfume cost! (Think of the Haiti relief it could have funded!)

But Jesus interprets what she has done for those at the table: “Leave her alone,” he says. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

Just as Simeon in the Temple sensed sorrow ahead for the infant Jesus, so Mary senses that there won’t be much more time left with Jesus in his earthly life. She takes her chance and worships him while he is still there.

These contrasts are there for us to ponder:

· Paul’s change of attitude, from being satisfied through his own efforts, to being satisfied only in working for and suffering for and following Jesus.

· The difference in the smells! The dung Paul writes of, which represented his former life without faith in Christ, and the expensive perfume filling the life of those who do follow him.

· The difference in attitude between Judas, who steals the group’s money then lectures about waste, and Mary, who seizes an opportunity to give the best she can to Jesus without counting the cost.

The starkness of Paul’s statements does challenge those who claim to be Christians today. How much of an about face is required of US, for us to fit Christian faith into normal life in western culture? We don’t have to count it all as excrement - do we?. . .which can be confusing.

But if we find ourselves sort of identifying with what Judas said… it WAS a bit of a waste, wasn’t it - ?

Where do WE stand in the giving of ourselves?

Maybe we need to examine our own ethics as Paul did.

But the total giving of self, whether in the way Paul describes in his letter, or in the way Mary demonstrates by her actions, that is something else.

Paul sets out the rationale for Mary’s actions, which are not rational by worldly standards.

But then, Jesus’ actions are not rational either, by worldly standards.

Mary’s gift is lavishly and completely poured out for the One who will make of his own death a gift for the whole world.

The Psalm for today, 126, states it for us: The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.

Let us be glad. The Lord has done - and does do - great things for us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Refs: Textweek, several contributors

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Sermon for Mothering Sunday, 14th March 2010

Exodus 2.1-10; Luke 2.33-35

Collect for Mothering Sunday:

God of love, passionate and strong,

tender and careful:

watch over us and hold us all the days of our life;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Moses in the bulrushes is one of the first Bible stories I remember hearing. It ranks alongside Daniel in the lions’ den and David and Goliath for drama in the Old Testament.

What a lot of resourceful women looked out for Moses. The extract we’re given today doesn’t say why Moses’ mother did such a strange thing as putting her baby afloat in a basket in the river. She was one of the Hebrew people in slavery in Egypt, and the Hebrews were becoming so numerous that Pharaoh had a cull of these over-fertile slaves, and ordered the baby boys to be killed. They were to be thrown into the Nile. A simple but effective means of keeping their numbers down.

But first the midwives hid the fact that the boys were being born, and then Moses’ mother, when she could no longer conceal him, took this drastic step of floating him in a basket where he would be likely to be found.

And Pharaoh’s daughter surely knew she was going against her father’s orders when she rescued this baby from the river, but she did it anyway.

And then Moses’ sister, Miriam, watching from the river bank, achieved a real coup and fetched her mother to be a wetnurse for the baby, in the employ of Pharaoh’s daughter. So she had her son for some time longer.

Real ingenuity to protect the baby Moses, who would later grow up and lead his people to freedom from slavery.


There is a blessing in the Gospel reading, and also a shadow, a warning of tragedy ahead. Simeon warns the young mother, ‘a sword will pierce your own soul.’ Yes, this child was more special than any other child ever born, he would bring change to the whole world, but it would be at a price. Simeon, in the wisdom he had acquired through a long life walking closely with God, had recognised this baby as the Messiah he had longed to see, and he rejoiced at seeing him, but he also glimpsed something of the pain that could not and would not be avoided. And when a child suffers, the mother suffers too, and this is the essence of Simeon’s warning to Mary.

Moses was saved from death at the hand of Pharaoh by his quick-witted mother and sister, and subsequently led the Hebrews to freedom out of slavery in Egypt.

Well over a thousand years later Jesus was saved, in the first instance, from death at the hand of Herod when he had all the baby boys in Judea killed because he wanted to kill this new King of the Jews the wise men had talked of. His earthly father, Joseph, whom God trusted to bring up his Son, had a dream in which God warned him of the danger to Jesus, and Joseph took his family away to safety into Egypt, which seems ironic. The place of slavery for the Jews in former times became the place of safety for the infant Messiah.

The parents of both Moses and Jesus went to great lengths and ran great risks themselves to protect their children.

There is something divine happening here.

This is a model of God’s love and care for us. Mothering Sunday may be a difficult day for many people, whose relationship with their own mother has been interrupted or damaged in one way or another. This is a different kind of pain, and one which can be so difficult to overcome. And if God is our heavenly Mother as well as our heavenly Father, a parental relationship which falls a long way short of the ideal can damage our relationship with God.

But it needn’t.

If we are very fortunate we have earthly parents who love us completely, so understanding the love and care God has for us probably comes fairly easily. But if we are less fortunate, understanding that God is the heavenly parent who loves us completely might be difficult to grasp. But that is the truth. That is a part of the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We might say: if God is such a good parent, how could he allow his own Son to die such a terrible death? The thing is, Jesus is one with God. He is the human face of God himself, wholly human and at the same time wholly divine. God himself was nailed to the cross on that first Good Friday, in the person of Jesus Christ.

It isn’t that God loved Jesus less, but that he loves us more than he loves himself.

And he wants to be part of our lives. He wants to share the happy, joyful times, like today, when we give thanks for Anna together with her family - that’s lovely!

But he also wants to share in our darker times, supporting us to bear painful experiences.

And that same something divine happens whenever we manage to suffer alongside someone else in their darkest times, and when people manage to think of others in spite of their own pain.

Who give comfort where comfort is needed, and who suffer with us and for us when we suffer.

Sure, loving means sharing life’s joys, but that is the easy, happy part of loving.

But sharing the suffering, being there for each other through sad times, through difficult times, is the other side of loving, and it is costly.

And sometimes there isn’t anything we can do for each other but be sad together.

That is what God does too. Jesus didn’t come to make everything fine and to take away all the bad things that happen, but he came to be with us always. Just like a loving parent who cannot always make everything right, he stays with us, all the way, all the time, to the very end. He was faithful to the very end, on the cross.

And the strange paradox of the cross is that that instrument of torture and death became the Good News of salvation to all the ends of the earth, because through that cross Jesus put us right with God.

Moses saved his people from slavery. Jesus saves his people, he saves US, from sin. He frees us from the consequences of sin. The wages of sin is death, and we are free.

This is the Gospel, the Good News. Believing this Good News means we are right with God. That we turn to him in faith.

We ARE right with God. Not by OUR actions, but by HIS.

Are we right with each other?

Are we right with the people we care for and who care for us?

If we know we are not right with them, is there anything we can do about that?

Maybe… maybe not. Sometimes just wanting to be right with someone isn’t enough. But trying to make it right might be worth a go, even though it may be costly. And sometimes all we can do for someone is pray for them. And that is always worth doing.

There is something here we can do for people we ARE in touch with, to show our love and appreciation:

The beautiful posies we traditionally have for Mothering Sunday are here ready, and I’d like to invite everyone who would like to, take one, to give to someone who mothers YOU, in whatever way.

It might BE your Mum!

Or someone else… it might even be a MAN!

Someone who looks out for you, who cares for you, and who you would like to show that their care is important to you, and that you care for them too.

Sermon for Sunday 7th March 2010

Third Sunday of Lent, Year C

Isaiah 55.1-9; Psalm, 63.1-8; Luke 13.1-9

Do you remember when we all had black and white televisions? And when there were only two channels? I remember our neighbours got BBC2 before we did, and going over the road to watch the Six Wives of Henry VIII.

And football teams had to coordinate their strips, to make sure they looked different in the black and white. But it was good, and we watched it and enjoyed it. Even snooker!

I’ll come back to that.

Let’s consider these readings.

We have a wonderfully lyrical passage from Isaiah, and a beautiful Psalm, and then the Gospel reading, which today sounds a warning note.

In all the readings, though, ‘life’ is something other than just the physical, but not less than the physical, either.

If we take the Psalm first, which is attributed to David the King, the intimate relationship between God and his faithful ones is expressed so beautifully:

that God refreshes those who seek him and contentment and rejoicing are the response from those who love God and give him his rightful place in their lives. But… and there is a ‘but’.

The lovely Psalm, in the extract on the pew sheets, stops at verse 8. This is not the end of the Psalm. It continues:

They who seek my life will be destroyed;

they will go down to the depths of the earth.

They will be given over to the sword

and become food for jackals.

But the King will rejoice in God;

all who swear by God’s name will praise him,

while the mouths of liars will be silenced.

(vv.9-11, NIV)

A different tone altogether.

The serene and gentle picture of the poet’s relationship with God, with his thirst quenched and comfort and reassurance under the shadow of the wings of God - all this is overshadowed by the thought of those who want the poet’s death. And he calls down curses upon them.

The colour has gone, and the picture has changed into harsh black and white.

Through his prophet Isaiah, God issues an open invitation to everyone: ‘Come’. Just come.

That is the only requirement. The forgiveness and cleansing and feeding are there for the taking. Come!

Isaiah is the longest of the prophetic books in the Bible, and many of his writings are well-known. The famous ‘Suffering Servant’ chapters which foretell the passion and crucifixion of the coming Messiah, our Lord Jesus, (ch 53 v 4: He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows…; v 7: he was led like a lamb to the slaughter… and so on), come just before this passage, which tells of the time AFTER the sorrow and the suffering, when salvation has been won for us.

This is what all the suffering was for: so that we might come freely to the feast laid on for us by our Father God who loves us so much. “ ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ says the Lord.”

And so Jesus teaches us, that we may try and grasp what God is saying to us, even though our thoughts and our ways are so limited compared to all that God wants us to understand.

Jesus often used parables to try and explain an aspect of God to his listeners, and therefore to us. This one, about the unfruitful fig-tree, sounds a warning.

There are some interesting facts to notice about the cultivation of figs, which Jesus’ original listeners would have known. In Palestine, vineyards and vegetable gardens are generally planted with fruit trees, including figs, and the first three years of a fig tree’s growth were allowed to elapse before its fruit was deemed to be clean. So six years had already passed since it was planted - so it was hopelessly fruitless. A fig-tree absorbs a particularly large amount of nourishment from the soil, and so deprives the surrounding vines. Also, manuring a vineyard or a fig tree is not mentioned anywhere in the OT, and in any case, the fig tree would not normally need such extra care.

So what the gardener is suggesting is going above and beyond the usual care for a fig tree.

There was a old folk tale in the Bible lands, which would have been familiar to Jesus and everyone else, and in this story are the words:

“My son, you are like a tree which yielded no fruit, although it stood by the water, and its owner was forced to cut it down. And it said to him, ‘Transplant me, and if even then I bear no fruit, cut me down.’ But its owner said to it, ‘When you stood by the water you bore no fruit, how then will you bear fruit if you stand in another place?’ ” Jesus makes use of this folk tale, but gives it another ending: the request is not refused, but granted.

The gardener is a figure added to the original story, the intercessor for the tree. This could be understood to represent Jesus himself, pleading for the unfruitful one to be given another chance.

But the point Jesus is making in the comments leading into the parable of the unproductive fig tree challenges our notions of pride and spiritual privilege.

That ‘being good’ can earn us privileges with God.

The people who told Jesus about a strange incident involving blood and polluted sacrifices at the hands of Pilate might have been trying to provoke Jesus into some kind of violent reaction. (This isn’t written about in any of the other Gospels.)

The people being killed, whether deliberately or accidentally, were not necessarily deserving or undeserving. Bad things do happen to good people, and the reverse happens too. We know this. We’ve all seen it.

Whatever reaction they had been expecting, Jesus tells them to repent or perish. The decision facing them is as stark as that.

“Don’t put off life-changing decisions,” Jesus urges them, “because you may never have the chance again.”

Even with the fig tree and the extra manure and extra time given, its time of judgement would come, if not sooner, then later. And so will ours.

Everyone who comes across Jesus and recognises that he has something that can’t be found anywhere else, comes to a crisis point, a point at which they have to take decisions.

Are we in a great rush, or can we take our time?

But what is on offer is the generous mercy of God. Why wait? Why procrastinate over such an offer?

Well, turning to God does mean a lifetime’s discipline, learning his nature and his will, patiently and humbly, over and over again. That might be a reason! But turning to him makes life so much richer in so many ways. It is like the difference between watching snooker in black and white and watching it in colour!

Repent or perish. That’s the choice.

Turn to Jesus, learn his ways, which are so much higher than our ways.

Turn to God; seek him eagerly; cling to him with all your heart and soul.

And may each one of US bear good fruit.



Joachim Jeremias: The Parables of Jesus

Martin Warner CT 5th March 2010

Jane Williams: Lectionary Reflections Year C

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Sunday 28th February 2010, Second of Lent Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18 Luke 13.31-35

Each week I read through the set lectionary readings for Sunday, and see which ones ‘speak’ to me before deciding which ones to preach on. And the Old Testament reading today made me sit up and wonder whether I was up to tackling it. So here goes…

This passage from Genesis is one of the classic blood & gore ceremonies of the ancient world. They probably still take place in some parts of the world, but here, in the UK in the 21st century it all seems rather messy, cutting animal carcasses in half and laying the parts out on the ground.

What was all that about?

Let’s put this episode into the context of Abram’s life so far.

(And so far, he was still Abram; the issue of circumcision was still in the future, and that was when God changed Abram’s name to Abraham.)

This is the thing: Abram was the one chosen by God, and he was also the one who listened when God spoke to him. Ten generations previously, Noah had been alone in listening to God, and now only Abram was listening. And, like Noah, not just listening, but obeying.

He was married to Sarai and the two had followed a journey as God had revealed it to Abram.

They had travelled to Canaan, and to Egypt, and from one end to the other of the country we call Israel or Palestine, all because the Lord spoke to Abram and told him to go there.

And during all the years of their travelling both Abram and Sarai longed for a child, a son, and there was none.

Abram had doubts. God had promised him a son, an heir. Having no son, in his culture, was like a sentence to eternal death.

Eternal life, in the ancient Hebrew culture, was through a man’s children, and specifically through sons. They would carry on his line. Sons represented the future, a continuation of himself.

Abram was honest about his doubts. And he told God about how he felt. In fact he had a real whinge. He didn’t pretend to believe in the face of his real doubts; he told it to the Lord like he felt it. “O Lord God, what will you give me? … You have given me no offspring…”

And yet, when the Lord shows him the stars in the sky and tells him his descendants will be as numerous as those stars, Abram believes. He really believes. And the Lord, who knows all the secrets of Abram’s heart, knows he believes, and “the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

At this point in Abram’s journey he has just had an encounter with Melchizedek, the priest and king, who had wanted to honour Abram, but Abram had scrupulously avoided taking anything from him, because he served God only. He could have taken advantage of the situation and profited from the priest-king, but the spiritual power of Melchizedek had impressed Abram, and they treated each other with due respect.

This, then, after what might have been a test of honesty, is the point at which, with belief in his heart, Abram asks the Lord for a sign: “How shall I know that I shall possess all this land?” And God gives him a sign, following the rituals Abram would have recognised. The Lord almighty, Creator of all that is, visible and invisible, stooped to follow human rules and rituals to give his beloved Abram the sign he craved, in the blood and entrails of the sacrificial animals.

That this was a serious covenant ceremony is borne out elsewhere in the Old Testament, AND the penalty should the covenant be broken. Jeremiah 34.18: The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.

A strong warning, and confirmation of the binding nature of this covenant. It is a vow to the death.

And it is God who takes the oath. Abram provides the animals for sacrifice and prepares them, and protects them from scavenging birds, but it is God who takes the smoking fire-pot and the flaming torch and passes between the pieces of the animals. It is the Lord himself who made the covenant with Abram, not the other way round.

(It is a kind of preview of the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day that guided Moses and the Children of Israel after their exodus from Egypt.)

And in this way, God made his covenant promise to Abram, that he would be a father to millions.

And this was AFTER Abram had taken the Lord at his word, and believed. It was after he had accepted what the Lord said, that he was given this dramatic sign of God’s faithfulness. The Lord was showing him, in terms he could understand, just how seriously he, the Lord, took his own promise.

Last week, in the Gospel reading with Jesus in the wilderness facing temptations, we heard how it was AFTER Jesus had held on and been faithful to his purpose in the desert, THAT was when angels attended him.

God will stretch us, sometimes to the limit, but he will not leave us and he is faithful. And if we can believe that, and if we can hold on too, it will be reckoned to US, even to US, as righteousness.

And God stretches himself, too. Just what it cost him to keep not only the letter but the spirit of these ancient promises to his people is spelled out in the Gospel reading from Luke.

Jesus is under threat, and is aware of the danger in going to Jerusalem, and is heading there in certain knowledge that he will die there, and yet he brushes away warnings about Herod and weeps instead over Jerusalem.

What a lovely image he uses to express his desire to bring the holy city back to God: the mother hen gathering her chicks protectively under her wings, clucking and fussing over them like hens do, worrying if any of them stray away from the safety of the wings circling them.

Such a different image from the OT speaking of eagles’ wings soaring high.

The mother hen is on the ground with the chicks, and she is vulnerable too, because in protecting her chicks she leaves herself open to attack, because she won’t run away.

The line calling Herod “that fox” is an expression well-preserved by Luke.

There was a contemporary saying “Be a tail to lions and not a head to foxes”, which might even have been in Jesus’ mind when he said it. In that saying, the lion stands for nobility worth following, in preference to being manipulated as a mouthpiece for the untrustworthy fox. Herod was sly and cunning and not to be trusted. Jesus was wholly to be trusted to continue the path ordained for him to the bitter end. A vow to the death.

Abram asked and asked for what he wanted, and trusted even in the face of years of disappointment. It was to be many more years before his wife bore Isaac. Abram was not perfect, but God values faith rather than moral perfection

And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

God had said to Abram, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield”. And Abram DID believe.

How do we believe?

How confident are WE to put into practice what we learn of God, what we learn of Jesus, what we learn of how God asks us to live?

And if we sometimes have doubts, do we acknowledge them before God, or do we try and pretend we feel as holy as we think we should?

We might sometimes kid others, but we won’t kid God.

How honest are we about the way we live out the rest of the week what we say we believe on Sunday?

How honest are we about our giving, our tithing?

How honest are we about our FORgiving?

About our learning to love those we find difficult?

Those who seem to go out of their way to trip us up rather than offer a helping hand.

We can take a useful leaf out of Abram’s book, and be truly honest with God, even if that means complaining to him as Abram did. God will honour our honesty over any false piety we might offer him.

Honest faith holds an inkling of doubt. The Lord knows how hard it can be for us to hold the faith. But he asks us to do it anyway.

Believe, and be faithful, and wait upon the Lord.

What a hard thing to do.

[Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord.]

We ask for strength to wait and trust.

And to remember that the faithful path isn’t always the safe one.

Blessed IS the one who comes in the name of the Lord.



Martin Warner, Church Times 26 Feb 2010

Jane Williams, Lectionary Reflections Year C

H. Clay Trumbull, The Blood Covenant