Luke 21:25-36 – Advent
Today is Advent Sunday. Traditionally the start of the church year. A time of Advent calendars, mince pies, carols, and Christmas preparations. Though Advent calendars, which always used to just have pictures behind the doors but now invariably seem to have chocolate, start on December 1st instead of the actual start of Advent, today.
Advent does look forward to Christmas, to celebrating Jesus’ coming as an infant, but it also looks far forward to Jesus’ Second Coming. This is where our gospel reading is coming from. Except for the first few verses (which are about the widow’s mite) the whole of Luke 21 is taken up by Jesus’ teaching on the end times. Luke 21 closely parallels Matthew 24 and Mark 13.
The teaching starts (v5) with the disciples admiring the temple, but Jesus saying how it would be destroyed: “not one stone will be left on another”. The disciples ask when this will happen, and what will be the signs that it is about to take place. Jesus replies with a rather sombre description of wars, revolutions, famines, plagues, earthquakes and persecution, fearful sights and great signs from heaven. These things will happen, but they are not signs of the end.
He then goes on to talk about armies attacking Jerusalem, leading into today’s reading about the signs that the end times are coming.
It is not an easy passage, nor a cheerful passage. It is difficult to work out exactly what is going on, and when and what Jesus is referring to. This may be a modern problem, in that we expect logical, ordered, reporting, a chronological history, and that is definitely not we get here.
There are a few strands:
- [Picture: www.christian.art/en/daily-gospel-reading/1003] The language is that of traditional apocalyptic literature, particularly the book of Daniel, but also some books that did not make it into the Bible. (Interestingly, we call all these non-canonical writing ‘apocrypha’.) The Book of Revelation is in the same genre. Apocalyptic writing reveals hidden things about the world, usually through somewhat fantastic visions or dreams.
- It includes references to one specific event, which is the destruction of Jerusalem. This occurred at the hands of the Roman armies of Emperor Tito in AD70, when Herod’s temple was destroyed. It has never been rebuilt. This was a time of great hardship for the Jews, a major factor in their dispersion out of Israel. The contemporary Roman Jewish historian, Josephus (AD37-100) described the destruction of Jerusalem in very similar language to that which Jesus uses here, 30 years earlier. [The apocalyptic painting here is The Destruction of the Temple, Samuel Colman, 1835.]
- Jesus is not only talking about AD70, and he refers generally to ‘this age’, which seems to run from when he was speaking to the end times.
- He also looks far forward to the end times, the end of history, and the return of the Son of Man, ‘coming in a cloud’.
- Through all of this he is providing guidance on how Christians should behave and respond as it is happening.
- The ideas are all rather mixed together, and there are few signposts to tell us when he moves from one subject, or one period, to another. This seems to be quite common with prophecies in the Bible. Without the specifics that you see with hindsight, it is difficult for the listeners, and probably the prophet, to be clear what it going on.
The Son of Man clearly refers to Jesus himself, and he is foretelling a specific event, the Second Coming, when he returns. How do we fit this into our ideas of the world?
There is a Brian Cox series on BBC at the moment, Universe. I find them a bit slow, padded out with rather irrelevant scenery and computer animations, but there is some interesting stuff in there. In one of them, he talks about the ‘heat death’ of the universe. This is a theory, a projection from what we know at the moment. About 20 years ago, we used to think that there would be a Big Crunch, that all the stars and galaxies flung out by the Big Bang would eventually be slowed down by gravity and dragged back until everything collapsed back into a point, or singularity, again. This is not the current theory. We now know that the universe is expanding, and accelerating outwards, driven by something termed dark energy.
So physicists model what will happen if the expansion continues. Stars run out of fuel and go cold. Matter will decay into photons and leptons. Even black holes will evaporate after 10106 years (1 million google years. There have only been 1017 seconds since the Big Bang, so this is a long time). We end up with very thinly spread particles, cold and dark, rushing away from each other. The universe goes out with a whimper, not a bang.
This feels like a very different story to God wrapping up history in the Second Coming. Now, the science may be wrong; it is only a theory, with lots of unknown. But even if we are wrong about the ultimate end, it does not look like anything significant happens to the universe for a very, very long time. So what is Jesus referring to?
Well, it could be that God, as Creator, does something outside science, and just wraps things up. Of course, he could do this. Or physics behaves in a way we do not understand. Or that Jesus is talking about something completely different, “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21v1), replacing our lives here. Just as Genesis is not giving us a scientific treatise on cosmology or evolution, neither is the teaching on the Second Coming. We really do not properly know.
But, Jesus tell us to look out for the signs of the end in the sun, moon and stars. [www.christian.art/en/daily-gospel-reading/9903] Jesus makes it clear that his Second Coming will not go unnoticed. “The Second Coming happened yesterday, but I missed it.” The signs are not the natural and human-made disasters he refers to earlier. It will be different. [www.christian.art/en/daily-gospel-reading/987].
Whatever happens, Jesus is saying that God is, and will be, in control. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Jesus is warning us of difficult times, but saying that our trust in him should not waver. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
[www.christian.art/en/daily-gospel-reading/1003] When trees sprout leaves after the winter, you know that summer is near. How do we wait for the Second Coming, what difference does it make to us? Rather than despairing in what is happening in the world, rejoice that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Talking with Rachel while preparing this, she summarised it as “Live each day is if it is your last.” That can be taken in various ways. If the world was ending this evening, you would not bother cooking supper. But Jesus is saying that we should live in awareness that the Kingdom is coming. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. Keep your relationships good. Do good today, not waiting for tomorrow. Get right with God now, not some easier time in the future.
It is appropriate to end with our New Testament reading from Thessalonians. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Jeremy Thake, St. John & St. Stephen.
The Coming of the Son of Man
25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Exhortation to Watch
34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’
1 Thessalonians 3
Timothy’s Encouraging Report
9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Isaiah 55.1-11, Mark 10.46-end
Today is Bible Sunday, a day when we give thanks for the bible, celebrate it and particularly remember those people and organisations that work to promote the bible, among them our own Hamish Bruce who of course works for the Bible Society
Our readings today (OTanyway) is especially for Bible Sunday cos it refers to God’s word. Our gospel is actually the gospel for the 21st Sunday after Trinity, which is today. It seems appropriate to Bible Sunday as well because it describes what can happen when someone encounters Jesus, God’s Living Word. As RC said a few weeks back we have God’s word in the pages of our bibles, and God’s living Word, Jesus Christ.
Someone said of the bible; ‘most books I read, but this book reads me!’ So this morning I ‘d like to start by offering a few examples of people who have been ‘read’ by the bible.
Starting right here in our own church on Thursday when we hold café church. One of those who came on Thursday said beforehand ‘I’d like to be cheered up today’. When we came to our gospel reading we had the same gospel as this morning, and quite extraordinarily, it included those words, ‘Get up, cheer up, Jesus is calling you!’ It was as though the words of scripture were reading this person’s heart.
Then looking further back in 1945 the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann as a very young man, was a pow in Scotland during the 2WW and he and his fellow prisoners were being shown photos of the atrocities in Belsen and Buchenvald. He was overcome with shame and horror. He had little Christian background, but when the chaplain distributed copies of the bible he read Mark’s gospel and the account of Jesus’ crucifixion there, and made a deep connexion between Christ’s suffering and forsakenness, and his own desolation and sense of guilt. He later became the theologian who speaks most eloquently about a God who suffers. ‘The crucified God’ is probably one of his best known books.
Then Charles Wesley, a member of a group of Anglican clergy who formed a club called the Holy Club (can you imagine!) in the 18th century because the church at that time had become formalised, dry and often lax. Wesley wanted things to be better. He was an activist and he was after moral perfection. Burning with zeal he travelled to America to spread the gospel there, only to return a couple of years later having experienced almost complete failure. It was while he was in London listening to a preacher consider Paul’s letter to the Romans that some words stood out for him and he felt his heart ‘strangely warmed’. The words were about God doing the work in us and trusting in that rather than working hard ourselves to ensure that it happens (being justified by faith rather than works). The bible was reading him. Of course he went on to be an extraordinarily effective evangelist, not in America, but here in the UK, especially amongst working class people in the new industrial towns and mining villages.
And then, to myself when as a young woman I attended a summer festival at the Corrymeela community in N Ireland. There were speakers, workshops and bible studies. At one bible study we all had to reflect on Jesus’ story about the king who organised a great banquet and sent out invitations to the guests. Suppose we received an invitation what would we do? My immediate response on considering this was to think of who I would pass on the invitation to. I hardly even bothered to look at it. Almost at once I heard, coming from somewhere, the words ‘this invitation is for you’. I still recall the sense of delighted surprise, as I heard those words. It was the start of my journey towards getting this (point to dog collar)
In these kinds of encounters with the bible, a book that reads us, there is often a shift inside us, connecting with a call to be or do something. This comes out in our reading from Isaiah which, by the way reminds us that scripture doesn’t’ just read individuals. It also reads our context. The people of Israel were returning from 70 years in exile. 70 years. Imagine what it must have been like after all that time. Filled with hope. Emerging at last. Everything was going to be better. Instead they were faced with shortages – food, drink, money, petrol (no, not petrol! But you get my drift). Even their pattern of work had changed, making it hard to know whether they would still have enough to live on. Sounds familiar? Typically with this prophet, Isaiah basically challenges their picture of what God is like. Do they imagine his being tight fisted, puny, mean minded, distant, indifferent to what they need as they emerge? What kind of God do they think he is? Do they view the words he had spoken to them and to their ancestors in the past as mere cakeism? ‘You are my people and I will be your God’. If God has spoken a word, it happens. This is conveyed most powerfully in the opening words of our bible when God was creating the heavens and the earth – God said ‘Let there be light’, and there was light….Let the land produce living creatures, and it did. Isaiah is the prophet who enlarges Israel’s understanding of God; that he is not just the God of Israel, but creator of the heavens and the earth.
And what about them? If God is this bountiful, faithful, generous, loving, awe-inspiring God, then they, his people will have a calling worthy of him. They might be returning in small, dispirited groups, with few possessions to their name, facing ruined homes, and vineyards and fields overgrown with thistles and thorns, but it won’t be long before they’re sharing good news of a God who has provided for them . They will be like a beacon of hope to countries round about them.
As people also emerging from an exile we might want to take note of this. What kind of words has God spoken to us? Have we held on to them? Do we trust them? If we have good news are we passing it on?
Earlier this week I was chatting with someone whose calling has taken a serious blow during the pandemic. Not only had his calling been dealt a blow, but so had his livelihood. He had trusted God with his calling, done his best, and now this. How could he emerge with hope? God had let him down. What I notice about God’s calling is that it connects with something we enjoy and are good at. This man really likes driving, and needing an income, he applied for and was offered the job of a delivery driver. He likes being the bearer of good news and bringing a smile to people’s faces. If he’d been in the crowd round Bartimaeus that day when Jesus was passing by he would have been the one who encouraged him by saying, ‘Get up, cheer up, Jesus is calling you.’ He’s discovered he can do something similar when he delivers parcels. When the front door opens he says, holding out the parcel, ‘I have good news for you!’ He truly relishes what is usually a pleased smile and thanks from the customer.
God has a calling on all of our lives. Bartimaeus only got in touch with his when he heard Jesus speak those words, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ That’s what led to his decision to follow Jesus. The people of Israel re-connected with their calling as a people loved by God through the pain of exile and the challenge of returning. Isaiah helped them to see God again, but in a new light. So often it’s the bible that enlarges our vision of what God is like. It’s words from scripture that can jolt us or nudge us into a fresh understanding of who we are and who God is.
For many of us there is a sort of instability about our situation as we continue to emerge into a landscape that often seems less fixed than before. Just one ping from Test and Trace and you might have to re jig your whole week. Perhaps somewhere in there is an invitation to re consider our calling. Perhaps God want to re jig that too.
The bible is apparently said to be a book owned by the most people and yet read by the least these days. May that not be true here at St John’s. I’d like to challenge you to read our gospel or Isaiah 55 during the coming week, chewing over the passage in the way Richard described the other Sunday (‘dwelling in the Word’ as our diocese calls it), or picturing what’s going on, or if you have a bible that cross references, following those, or using a commentary, taking a word or phrase during the day. A modern translation is easier to follow than The King James version. If you don’t have a bible, or don’t have one in a modern translation speak to me afterwards. Or, if you prefer an electronic access to the bible try using the Pray as you Go app which offers scripture and prayer for each day of the week.
I’m going to close with the last verses of Isaiah 55 which for some reason our lectionary leaves out. Isaiah speaking God’s word to the dispirited remnant of that small insignificant country of Israel as they return in dribs and drabs to their homeland.
For you shall go out in peace, and be led forth in joy, and the mountains and the hills shall burst into song before you, and all the trees of the fields will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush the cypress will grow and instead of briers will come up the myrtle.
3rd slide This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign which shall not be cut off.
Christine Bainbridge 24 October 2021
Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31
The word of God is living and active
This morning I would like to explore one way that we can hear God speaking with us. With you. With me. I wonder how you feel just now, hearing those words? Did your heart give a little surge? Was there a sense of yes, I want that? I would like to hear from God personally, to me, in my life? Or was there a bit of fear in there? Anxiety, apprehension? What would he say to me if I gave him the chance? Tell me off? Or was it, no, I don’t want this. If that’s the case, where does the resistance come from? Or was there a blank feeling, a sort of internal shrug – whatever? Meh? For now, just register your reaction. It is how you are, where you are now.
Why would God speak with me? Why would He take that trouble? In a very real, very big way, God has already spoken and continues to speak. He spoke the Word that brought the whole of creation into being. We read in Genesis 1 that: ‘Then God said, “Let there be light, and there was light…”’ God is recorded as having spoken all through the scriptures. God spoke again to Mary, Mary whose ‘yes’ enabled God to become a human being, whom John in his gospel refers to as ‘the Word made flesh’ (John 1:14) who came and dwelt among us.
And yet, it’s possible to say all of that, and even agree with it, and still not know how God can speak to me. Our two readings today give a vivid picture of what that may be like. It’s frankly a bit scary. In the Hebrews passage, the first reading, we heard that ‘the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart’. The idea of the word of God being like a sharp sword was vividly illustrated in the gospel reading. A man kneels before Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Why does he do that? He’s rich, he’s young, he’s a ruler (we know this from the other accounts of the same story in Luke and Matthew). He’s probably good looking too, he has everything. He knows the commandments and keeps them. What else could he possibly want? At some level he knows it’s not enough. He knows of Jesus, perhaps he has met him before and he senses, intuits, knows that this man has what he wants, what he needs to be complete. And he wants it. For after all, ‘O God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’ (Augustine). Jesus looked at this man and, as the gospel tells us, he ‘loved him’. And tells him he must sell all he owns, give the money to the poor, and follow him. Why for heaven’s sake does he tell him that?? Does that feel a bit like a sword, cutting through the thoughts and intentions of the heart? I’m sure that wasn’t what the man expected. Jesus surely didn’t want this to needlessly cause him pain, and yet it did cause him pain. ‘When he heard this, he was shocked, and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. To understand this, we have to remember that Jesus’ attitude towards him was one of love and he spoke to him out of that love. He saw that his wealth was his security, it defined him, it was a false god, it blocked his relationship with the one, true, living God. It had to go, at a single stroke. For that man to find what he was looking for, eternal life, (which is another way of saying God, because to know God is to find eternal life (John 17:3)), the false god had to go. In order for that man to become the person that God wanted him to be – free, an inheritor of eternal life in all its fulness and joy – he had to offload what held him down. Think of the parable of the treasure hidden in a field and the man who sold everything he had to buy the field; or the pearl merchant finding the ‘pearl of great price’ and selling all he had to get it (Matthew 13:44-46). It’s the same message. I will just say here that Jesus is only recorded as having said this to this one man.
But I digress. What might God be saying to you, to me? And how can we hear? Will it hurt? As we begin to consider this, let us hold on to the fundamental truth that God’s attitude towards you and me is always and only one of love. He will only lead us towards what completes us, fulfils us as beloved and precious children of God. If there is something hard for us to hear then it is for our growth, not to punish or to squash us.
The Hebrews passage I have already referred to talks of the ‘word of God’ and I am taking that to mean the scriptures, the bible, although God may speak to us in any number of ways. There are many ways to read the scriptures. Some of us here will have grown up with the idea that the Bible is a bit like an instruction manual – follow the maker’s instructions and all well be well. There are bits of the bible that read like that – but plenty that doesn’t. The Bible is a very varied book – actually 66 different books – written over a long period of time with very different aims in mind. I guess some of us have at some time done ‘bible study’ – often in groups like our home groups – where we analyse the passage, pull it apart, try and make sense of it. This way of reading scripture is perfectly valid, but it tends to be quite analytical, quite ‘head-based’. And then there are lots of people who hardly read the scriptures at all, for whatever reason.
I would like to introduce a way of engaging with scripture that just may help us to hear what God is saying to me, now. It’s an ancient method, and some of us are familiar with it, some not. It’s a way of reading scripture that takes into full account that God is present. Present with us as we read, but also present in us as we read. It’s like reading a book when the author is actually in the room with us, whispering to us, I wrote this for you!
The method goes by different names – Lectio Divina is the traditional name meaning ‘divine reading’ or ‘sacred reading’, but it’s also known as ‘dwelling in the word’. First, you need to choose a passage to read – the gospels are good places to start. I have listed some places you could start with on the sermon printout. This way of reading scripture is really prayer.
First, select a passage of scripture and the find some time – perhaps 15 or 20 minutes – and a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Phone off. Door shut. Then, you will need to become still. This is perhaps the hardest part. Sit comfortably, perhaps take some slow, deep breaths, breathing in God and breathing out any anxieties you have. Put down what is concerning you. Slow down. Pray, ask God to speak with you as you engage with the passage you will read. Turn to the text and read it slowly, gently. You might read it out loud to yourself – this is a good way to slow down, to prevent you rushing forward. You might pause after reading it once and read it again, and again. Savour each portion of the reading, constantly listening for the “still, small voice” of a word or phrase that somehow says, “I am the word for you today.” Does a word jump out for you? Or slowly emerge as important? Does it touch you in some way? Become aware of what is happening to you and in you: you may find that there is a gentle reaction in your body – a warmth in your heart, a sense of excitement, a tightening of your throat as you read, you may even tear up. Something – or someone – in you is reacting to what you are reading and it is here that God is giving you something that you need to hear and receive. In lectio divina God is teaching us to listen to Him, to seek Him in silence. He does not reach out and grab us; rather, He softly, gently invites us ever more deeply into His presence.
Next take the word or phrase into yourself. Memorize it and slowly repeat it to yourself, allowing it to interact with your inner world of concerns, memories and ideas.
Then, speak to God. Whether you use words or ideas or images or all three is not important. Interact with God as you would with one who you know loves and accepts you. And give to Him what you have discovered in yourself during your experience of meditation. Experience God using the word or phrase that He has given you as a means of blessing, of transforming the ideas and memories, which your pondering on His word has awakened. Give to God what you have found within your heart.
As an example, perhaps you are reading the story of Jesus calming the storm (Luke 8:22-25). As you read, these words stand out for you – ‘Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm’. As you read them out loud again, and again, you sense that these words are for you: there are many worries in your life at present, it feels like a storm. You allow these words to soak in and you respond in prayer, ‘Lord, it feels a bit like a storm in my life right now. Please, speak that word. Let there be calm.’ And then you might just rest, even perhaps picturing yourself in the boat, sitting with Jesus. It is the safest place to be.
Henri Nouwen, the priest, and author, tells this story: ‘There was a soldier who was captured and made a prisoner of war. The enemies took him far away and he was completely isolated from his family and friends. He did not hear anything from home and he felt very lonely and afraid. He felt he had nothing to live for and was in despair. Then, he got an unexpected letter, crumpled and dirty because it had travelled so long and so far to reach him. It was just a piece of paper, but precious to him because of the words it might contain. He opened the letter and read these simple words: “Everything is fine. Do not worry. We will see you back at home and we all want to see you”. This simple letter changed his life. He suddenly felt better and no longer despaired. There was a reason to live. The external circumstances of his life, his imprisonment and isolation, did not change. He continued his labour, endured the same difficulties, but he felt completely different on the inside. Hope was reborn in him that day. There was a word of God in the words of another. What I am trying to say is that God has written us a love letter in scripture, the written word. May we learn to read it, and to hear it, and allow it to speak to us, and let it bring in us the gifts of hope and faith.
Here are some passages to get you started on Lectio Divina:
Luke 10:38-42, Mary and Martha
Mark 10:46-52, The healing of blind Bartimaeus
Matthew 8:28-34, the Gadarene swine
Genesis 32:22-31, Jacob wrestles with the angel
Exodus 3:11-14, I AM who I AM
Matthew 5:14-16, You are the light of the world
There is lots written about Lectio Divina. Try googling ‘lectio divina passage’.
 Nouwen, Henri, Spiritual Direction – wisdom for the long walk of faith, SPCK, London, 2011, p. 100
James 3:13-4:3,7-8a – Creation
Today is the third Sunday in the Season of Creation. But I am also going to be talking about our lectionary readings, which are quite appropriate – though they may not seem so at first. Though I have read it many times before, I was particularly struck by the passage from James.
The Season of Creation always catches me out, as it never used to be part of the church’s calendar. There was a seemingly inexhaustible series of Sundays after Trinity that went on to the start of the new church year with Advent. In preparing this, I looked up where this new-found season came from. It actually dates back originally to 1989, when Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios of the Orthodox Church proclaimed 1st September as a day of prayer for creation. The World Council of Churches was then instrumental in using this as the start of a special season for creation, and it has been picked up by the Anglican Communion Environmental Network, Global Catholic Climate Movement, Lutheran World Federation, and others. It runs through to the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi on 4th October.
There is an ecumenical organisation (www.seasonofcreation.org) that coordinates the season, and which has suggested that this year’s theme is A Home for All? Renewing the oikos of God. Oikos is a Greek word meaning, variously ‘home’, ‘family’, ‘society’, and being the root of English words such as ‘ecology’ and ‘economics’.
The idea is that the whole inhabited earth, which belongs to God (The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it – Psalm 24v1), is our home, and we, and all societies are inextricably bound together in it. Caring for creation is part of the wider work of building peace between people, striving for justice and equality for all. Our political, social and economic systems need to function in a way that equitably shares our common home and respects it.
A day of prayer for creation in 1989 was quite prophetic, but today the need to take our responsibilities to our home the earth is plain. Climate change seems to be taking hold, with wildfires and floods devastating many countries in many parts of the world. There was a UN statement this week about global warming, warning that we are on target for increasing our carbon emissions by 16% by 2030, when they need to go down by 45% to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. The International Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, published its latest report in September, saying that “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” The IPCC provides much of the scientific basis for our understanding of global warming, and I would recommend that you have a look at its most recent report (www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/). The full report is a bit daunting, at 3,949 pages, but there is a summary report that is just 42 pages, and a longer Technical Summary at just 159 pages if you want most of the detail. I have put up a few of the graphs on the screen here, showing where global surface temperature, Arctic sea ice, and sea level is going for various scenarios. The top two are ‘do nothing’, the middle one is serious and immediate cuts in carbon emissions, the bottom two involve reducing emissions and actually taking carbon out of the atmosphere.
And as well as global warming (though partially related to it), we have a huge loss in biodiversity on earth, with major reductions in wildlife numbers across the planet, and the extinction of many species. Human activity is so widespread and invasive that we have major plastic pollution in the oceans.
You have heard all this. It is worrying, and can be really depressing. What are we doing for our children and our grandchildren. And while our lifestyles contribute to the problems, the changes we can make seem insignificant compared with what is required.
How does our reading from James help? Well, I have to admit up front that it does not present a simple solution to the problem. But what it does point to is the attitude that those of us who follow Christ should take to life generally, and to issues like this specifically. James was not thinking of climate change when he wrote his letter.
He was concerned with behaviour, behaviour that flows from what is within us.
The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy (3v17).
Wisdom for James is not just knowledge, but practical insight with spiritual implications. This is an extraordinary list, with deep implications for how we do things. Pure, not dishonest or acting out of hidden motives. Peaceable, not looking for an argument or a fight, hoping to build bridges. Gentle, not forcing your opinion on others, not using superior knowledge or fluency to talk over the other person. Willing to yield, listening, being prepared to take on board other opinions, to change your mind. Full of mercy, prepared to forgive, accept. Good fruits, reminds us of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal5vv22-23).
James contrasts this with envy and selfish ambition, which leads to boastfulness, dishonesty, conflicts and disputes. So often in our discussions we are defending our own images, not wanting to admit failures, or trying to get what we want.
This picture of the behaviour God wants is attractive, but not easy. In fact, following these few verses demands a wholesale conversion our selves, allowing the Spirit to work within us to change us. It is a life’s work, but it is, and should be our objective.
And creation? The problems we have in our world come down to relationships between people, nature and God which are deeply broken. Envy and selfish ambition are major drivers in our misuse of the world and its resources. A Christians we are trying to restore those relationships. What we are bringing to inequality and unsustainable lifestyle choices is not confrontation, but an attempt to be peacemakers and bring reconciliation. Behaving as James is describing: A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace (3v18).
Which is not to say that Christians should be push-overs. Jesus is our example, and he threw the moneychangers out of the temple, and called the Jewish leaders hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, broods of vipers… But our action should be coming out of a sense of wanting to reintroduce right relationships, God’s perspectives, into the situation.
Much of what we see in modern society works the other way. I think this is obvious in much of what we see in the USA (possibly because it is easier to see in something we are removed from), where politics is increasingly partisan, where Republicans and Democrats do not cooperate on anything, see having any common goals or views as fatal concessions that could lead to a loss of votes or influence. Where honesty is not a consideration in defeating an opponents argument or trying to trash his reputation. And it is not just in America; it happens quite a lot here.
In the way the media works, particularly with social media and the way the internet works, where we are funnelled into articles and videos and groups that reflect what we naturally think, pushed into ever more extreme expressions of our own preferences. Where we miss necessary interaction with those who are different or who disagree with us. Where those who take a different position become remote, stupid, biased, not really human.
What we see in James is that attitude and integrity are important foundations, whether of our personal lives, or of any movement or renewal. It is not just results we are after, it is how we get there. Which makes it more difficult of course. But then we have God on our side.
Jeremy Thake, St. John & St. Stephen.
Two Kinds of Wisdom
3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Friendship with the World
4:1 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
Praying for Creation James 5.13-20, Mark 9.38-50
The picture on the screen shows Växjö cathedral in Småland Sweden. As you know, Oxford diocese is twinned with Växjö diocese. This time last week we were there visiting our daughter. Like us the cathedral is marking the season of creation and its newsletter encourages members to risk taking more steps to cherish the earth, our common home, as we face a climate emergency. The city of Växjö itself has a huge power plant generating electricity from waste wood (Sweden is a country of forests) and we noticed our daughter’s food waste bag says that the food waste contributes to biofuel for Växjö’s buses. The cathedral is open every day for prayer and sitting there in that very green city seemed a good place to start thinking about this particular Sunday when the focus is on praying for the earth and its inhabitants.
The reading from the letter of James describes the power of prayer, especially in Jesus’ name, and refers back to Elijah’s prayer for rain. This is a good enough place to start considering praying for creation. It’s a reminder of our dependence on the earth for the food grown on it and of our dependence on rain for that growth. We are encouraged to pray for what we need. There are several prayers for rain or good weather in the BCP, and then prayers of thanks when these happen. We might feel called to pray for rain in those countries where there is drought. Here, too, we need rain, and we might also want to pray for more wind so that our wind turbines generate more of the energy we seem to be short of at present. However, in a situation of climate crisis, perhaps something deeper is also required.
For that I want to turn to today’s gospel reading. It includes some strange and difficult statements by Jesus. In reading Jesus’ words about chopping off a foot etc I was reminded of a favourite aunt who used to babysit for my sister and myself when we were little. She would sometimes look at us and say, ‘You’re so lovely I could eat you!’ I don’t remember either of us ever worrying that she might serve us up for dinner. What we experienced was a sort of passionate wave of affection directed at us.
Jesus’ words here express some passion. They are not to be taken literally, just as we didn’t take my auntie’s words literally. However, we have to take note of what was so important that he would use such violent language. He’s talking to his disciples. What does he want them to understand?
A couple of Sundays ago we reached a sort of hinge point in Mark’s gospel – Peter’s confession of who Jesus is and then Jesus explaining that in order to bring in God’s kingdom his path would involve suffering and death and that his followers needed to be ready to lose their life in order to save it – an off the wall idea which none of them understood. Instead, immediately before this they are arguing about who is to be the greatest in the kingdom, and then here we see James and John trying to define who is in and who is out in their group. Time is running out for Jesus. He and the disciples will soon be on that final journey towards Jerusalem. He has to get them to grasp the infinite value of entering God’s kingdom. Nothing must get in the way, nor must they let anything get in the way of others entering.
The kingdom can perhaps be summed up as everything to do with human flourishing – relationship with God, with one another and with the whole of creation (as Jeremy highlighted in his sermon last week). Shalom might be a Hebrew word we could use – peace, wholeness, justice. This is worth surrendering everything for (remember the pearl of great price and the treasure in the field – parables recorded in Matthew’s gospel).
The focus here is on the disciples’ relationship with one another. If we were to use more contemporary language we might say that Jesus is saying that choosing the kingdom is so important that its worth surrendering their ego. That’s the means by which in losing their life they will save it – ie be free to enter the kingdom, to enter fully into human flourishing, to be free to enable others to do the same. It’s not about who is the greatest, or who might have a VIP ticket, nor about who gets the best seats; it’s about ‘giving ourselves in love and service to one another’ to quote one of the prayers in our communion service. The letter from James makes it clear that a natural part of this loving and serving is about praying for one another, for our sisters and brothers.
I’d like to extend this to our relationship with the earth. St Francis does this beautifully when he addresses aspects of creation as brother sun and sister moon for example. He encourages us to view our existence on earth in a similar way to our relationship with a human sister or brother. We pray for our sisters and brothers out of a sense of relatedness to them (Cf Alan Denny and Susan Bicknell). In the same way, our deepest prayer for the earth comes out of relatedness. If we are simply observers, looking at creation rather like an interesting object, but not as something with which we are intimately connected, it’s harder to pray for the earth itself, rather than for what we can get out of it. Just as relating to each other involves surrendering our ego, so too does relating to the earth.
How do we do this? For this I’d like us to consider that somewhat enigmatic statement at the end of our gospel reading. ‘Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.’ Salt flavours things and also preserves them. In ancient times it was a valuable commodity (it’s where we get the word ‘salary’ from). Jesus is saying that his followers will add a valuable seasoning and preservative wherever they are. It’s a kingdom of God seasoning and preservative that nurtures peace – shalom – peace with justice, human flourishing. James shows us what that can mean in the life of a church – having the kind of relatedness that means we truly care for one another – eg praying for the sick, or searching for those who have lost their way. The same kind of connectedness enables us to pray for creation. If we are to give ourselves in love and service to the earth we have to develop a loving relationship with it. So, praying for the earth involves practising, developing this connectedness; actually loving the earth in the way we love those closest to us.
Essentially this is about attentiveness to whatever nature we have around us – sights, sounds, smells. Being fully present in nature, rather than focussing on what we need to get out of it. I find that spending time looking at the Kennet that runs through our parish does this for me. Sooner or later as we do this we hear that call running through Mark’s gospel, ‘Repent, (followed by the bit we so often leave out) and believe the good news’. Repent is what can happen when confronted by some awesome aspect of God we hadn’t fully noticed before. Suddenly we see our own littleness, our meanness, or whatever (think Peter confronted by Jesus and the miraculous catch of fish – Depart from me, for I am a sinful man). We’re both drawn towards whatever is this aspect of the divine and repelled at the same time by our own inadequacy, unworthiness; hardly daring to look at the splendour we have glimpsed. This is what Jesus wants his followers to grasp – look at what the Kingdom is, look at what the invitation to enter offers, be drawn towards it, allow yourselves to repent, to surrender your ego, to let go into God’s shalom. Doing that we are like the salt that adds flavour, zest to creation and, most importantly at present, the salt that preserves it for future generations. Our prayer for the earth and our sisters and brothers inhabiting it comes through a relatedness nurtured in the good news of the kingdom of God; accepting Christ’s invitation to dwell there, light and free, our egos surrendered.
It has been a busy week for me in the run-up to Freshers Week at the University. When I finally got time yesterday to prepare this sermon I was already somewhat ‘highly strung’.
My wife, Jo, feminist and academic, had gone away on a hen weekend with her future sister-in-law, part of which included a pole-dancing lesson – a prospect she was not looking forward to. This left me having to squeeze my sermon prep into the space of a train journey to Nottingham as I took our eldest son, James, to Nottingham University for an Open Day.
I was conscious of not having enough space, neither in time nor in my temperament, to listen to God and find room to plan a grace-filled sermon. As I set out on my train journey it got worse.
Being a middle-class, introverted, academic, and one who is privileged enough to live in a large house out of town, it’s something of an existential shock to find myself plunged into the crowded surroundings of a Saturday at Birmingham New Street. By the ticket gates I navigated the drunk who dropped his ticket in front of me and who, when I picked it up and called him back, began joyfully to tell me about how he was tripping on mushrooms and had no idea where he was going so probably didn’t need it anyway. I pushed the ticket into his hand, suggested he find a seat to work it off, and quickly darted away to the nearest Costa seeking sanctuary. A few minutes later I found myself in a close-packed queue, none of whom were wearing masks. As I ordered my coffee, I suddenly noticed that in front of me my barista was a young women in dark hijab, whilst beside me was a perfectly made-up, lightly clad, Instagram-ready girl glued to her phone. The incongruity set me wondering: what has become of us? How have we made such a mixed-up world?
We fought our way onto the train in search of seats and found ourselves stood beside a young couple who had ostentatiously spread their possessions over two other seats, despite the numbers of people standing, and who scowled as I asked for room. When we finally sat, at the end of the carriage a previously unnoticed group of football supporters began to lift their cans of lager to the heavens and sing. I began to curse inwardly.
Before setting out that the morning, I’d lain in bed listening to Radio 4’s Lyese Doucet interviewing former Afghan president Hamid Karzai about the past 20 years. How it had begun with the Americans pledging to bomb the Taliban into the stone-age in punishment for harbouring Al-Qaeda. At the time, apparently, Afghanistan had been a country without a single telephone line. I thought back to the anti-war marches I had fruitlessly joined in 2001. Fortunately, on the back of the idiocy of billions of dollars of western bombs, aid agencies and businesses had gradually entered the country and brought about radical changes for the better, not least in women’s rights. But now there was a question of how much of this would survive. As I sat on the train, the futility of it all gloomily settled upon me. And then I sighed further, as I recalled that whatever sermon I would produce, it would have to speak about creation-tide and so mention the upcoming COP26 climate talks… What on earth could I say that might address any of this craziness, I thought, I as read the Biblical texts?
There are moments when the gulf between the world of the New Testament and our own seems cavernous. The imaginative leap we are required to take from the agricultural-focused Iron Age narratives of Jesus’s day to our hyper-consumerist digital age seems almost impossible to make.
An interior rant at the state of the world began to form in my head. And then came the icing on the cake: two seats down a couple of teenage girls began to broadcast loud bursts of music on their phones as they videoed themselves in Tik-Tok. From my vantage point I could see a two-inch long painted thumbnail doing its improbable best to click the record button every 30 seconds as the two of them waved and jiggled in their seats. The hour and a half long journey began to seem much longer. My contempt for humanity reached peak disdain and I found myself beginning to formulate a sermon in disgust at our stupidity, at the cultural froth we surround ourselves with, at the way our idiotic addictive consumerist life-choices are screwing up the world. I tried to imagine what Jesus would say – surely, he too would fulminate and shout in disgust, like some latter-day Elijah? (Or perhaps he would simply read the chapter from Proverbs we heard earlier).
And then something happened. Stood in the gangway I noticed an Asian woman in a colourful salwar, her grey hair neat in a bun. She had moved toward the Tik-Tok girls and I watched as she smiled down at them like a grandmother and said something. I couldn’t hear what she said but I did hear, echoing down the carriage like a stream, the giggle of two young voices in response, a wonderful sound that was filled with youth and life. It was the most remarkable moment: I had just witnessed the briefest of encounters between humans. The music stopped and I swear the sun came out in the carriage and the faces of the people around me suddenly looked less severe and stony and ugly. Beside me, I realised that there was an older couple stood, whom I had not noticed before, balancing their heavy suit-cases precariously in the aisle, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to smile at them and offer them a hand to get their cases into the luggage rack. The journey was transformed.
‘Who do you say I am?’ asks Jesus in the villages near Caesarea Philippi, the capital city of the kingdom of Herod the Great’s son, Philip II. ‘You are the messiah’, says Peter proudly. And he means: you are a righteous, powerful man. You are an alternative to Philip. You are someone who can take Philip’s place and set the evil world to rights. You are someone who can stamp your righteous vision upon the ungodly, and we your followers will follow you like righteous zealots, like some kind of Christian Taliban. Sort of like me in my train seat: angry with the world and self-righteousness.
But no, says Jesus, Peter is not to call him a Messiah. The only title Jesus will accept is ‘the Son of Man’ which in our terms might just mean ‘The Human One’. I’m human, he says.
And then to Peter, he says, you must die to your ego. You must relinquish your fantasies of having power over other people. Those fantasies of righteous control must be transformed into a different kind of power, a power that is genuinely liberating of others, that brings about real change, rather than a power that just replaces one form of oppression with another holier form.
I do not know how we will solve climate change. I don’t know what will fix Afghanistan. I don’t know what can be done about many of the injustices in our world or the foolishness of our own culture. But on my train journey, I was reminded about what it means to be properly human, like Jesus, by a little Asian woman’s friendly words to a couple of teenage girls.
When the Tik-Tok girls passed me by to get off, I looked up into their faces and marvelled at their youth and beauty: two of God’s many miracles whom just a little while earlier I had been too blind with fulminating anger to see. And I was reminded that, like Peter, my own egotistical fantasies of self-righteous control and power must go the way of the cross. I, too, must learn a different way, a way that looks into the faces of others and sees in them as fellow children of God, rather than as objects to be controlled or problems to be solved. Whatever the future holds, however we are to navigate the many difficulties we face, to follow Jesus means to reject the way of the Messiah and the path of the self-righteous angry zealot.
Jesus says to us, ‘If any wish to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross … for those who wish to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life (lose their ego) for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.’
Song of Solomon 2:8-13, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
‘Give me an undivided heart’
It would be difficult to find two readings that are more different. The one, part of the beautiful love-poem of Song of Solomon with its invitation to “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away!”; the other a showdown between Jesus and some religious leaders over washing before eating. Yet there is a thread running between them, which, if only we can see it, we will find is made of the purest gold.
Let’s start with the gospel reading from Mark 7. Jesus and his disciples are enjoying some welcome food after traipsing around on hot and dusty roads all day. Some Pharisees and other religious leaders come by and find that they haven’t washed their hands and rebuke them, since this is against the strict rules of ritual cleanliness they observe. Now let’s understand this before we go on. Back in Exodus, there is a requirement that priests wash hands and feet before ministering at the altar (Ex 30:17-21) – understood to include washing before eating meat offered in the sacrifices. The Pharisees took this a step further since, based on another text – ‘you shall be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation’ (Ex 19:6) – they regarded all Jews as priests. They believed in the priesthood of all believers! So everyone had to obey this rule in order for Israel to fulfil its role of priesthood. Right?
In some ways, this passage reads a bit like a family argument. Everyone is Jewish, and deeply religious, and they are arguing about something that seems quite trivial. Yet here it is in today’s gospel reading, and 2000 years later we are still reading it. What’s the point? It’s a critique of how religious people too often exalt rituals above ethics. The wider picture here is that Rabbi Jesus and his followers had been going around calling people back to God, telling stories about God’s love for the lost, giving hope, healing the sick. And they’re hungry. Yet these religious leaders picked on their unwashed hands to have a go at them. Should they not have had regard for what they were actually doing?
The ‘trivial’ moment exposes something much deeper and Jesus confronts it head-on. His accusation is that they are ‘hypocrites’ (Mark 7:6). The word ‘hypocrite’ means ‘actor’ in Greek. It is someone who pretends to be who he or she is not. It is a denial of a person’s authentic self in favour of a made-up persona that he wishes to be. Religious people are very susceptible to this so all of us should take note! There are so many, many examples of this and none of us are exempt. We can do the right things, say the right words, perform the right religious practices – attend church, read the bible, say our prayers – but the reality of what we are, who we are can be quite different. Every so often a minister or preacher or bishop is caught out and we put our head in our hands and wonder what it’s all about, for it spills ink all over what we hold dear.
These religious leaders who criticised Jesus for eating with unwashed hands were using this seemingly trivial infraction of his to criticise a man who threatened their status, and they were coming to hate him. In time, their hatred would convince them that it was right to hand him over to the Romans to be nailed to a cross. Their hypocrisy was deadly.
The theologian Paul Tillich said that self-integration is one of the basic functions of life. What this means is that in order for us to flourish, we have to find our centre, our heart, and move out from that in integrity, freedom and courage. Another theologian, has described the human condition of sin – or we might say hypocrisy – as being divided against yourself in your very own being. To put it another way, you have a divided heart. That’s why I chose this short prayer from Psalm 86 as a title for this sermon: ‘Give me an undivided heart’ (Ps 86:11).
But we must dig even deeper. Jesus goes on, calling the crowd that had gathered and explaining that nothing that comes in from the outside can defile is, or make us unclean, unacceptable to God. No! it is from within, Jesus says, from the heart, that evil intentions come: theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness and so on. This is what defiles us. But what should come from our hearts – and can come from our hearts is (quoting Paul from Galatians): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self control (Galatians 5:22,23).
Let’s take a breather and head back to the Song of Solomon. How many times have you heard a sermon on this book? It’s a love-poem with two characters, a woman and a man, full of intense love, playfulness, beautifully described male and female bodies, plenty of sexuality, mountains and valleys, grapes and figs, goats and sheep. It is openly and deliberately erotic! (unfortunately we didn’t read one of the juicy bits this morning, more’s the pity!) The church has sometimes found the Song of Solomon a bit too hot to handle so has interpreted it as expressing the love between Christ and the church. Well, it will do for that too!! Anything that helps us understand how much Christ does love the church and everyone in it is to the good! But it’s difficult to escape its primary purpose which is to celebrate and affirm human love.
How on earth does it connect with the family row we have been thinking about, hypocrisy and the human heart? Ah! The human heart. In the Song we are treated to what an undivided heart looks like. There is no hint of hypocrisy here, or of a divided heart. Both characters are full of love for one another: there is no other motive, they are not trying to cover anything up. Their love for each other, fills them: their minds and their bodies as well as their hearts. It is the very opposite of what we read in the gospel about hypocrisy.
I’d like to invite you now to bring to mind and heart for a moment someone you love. Might be a partner, a child, mother or father, a friend. That person might not even be alive now. Just hold him or her in your mind and heart for a moment. How does that feel for you? It is a wonderful thing to love someone. Can you say where your love is, in which part of you? In your mind? In your heart? In your body? Actually, it’s in all of those places. It fills us. It is, I hope, undivided.
Reflect for a moment that this is how God regards you. With undivided love. He is not in two minds about you and me. There isn’t something horrible that’s hidden. His desire for us is that, like a flower unfurls its petals as the sun falls on it, so our hearts will open in the warmth and light of his love and we will find out who we are. Which is a beloved daughter or son of God. A brother or sister of Jesus. Yes! Let that in. It is the deepest, truest, most important thing to know. It is the work of our lives to find it, to know it, and to live it. This is the centre, the source from which our lives can flow. In the Song, through the words of the lover, we hear these words, an invitation to receive and enjoy that love: ‘My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away!”’ (Song 2:10)
Jesus didn’t find this open heart of love in the religious leaders who rebuked him and his followers for not washing. The men (they were all men, perhaps that was part of the problem) who should have known the love of God, didn’t. What they projected was religious superiority and purity. What was underneath that was fear and murderous hatred.
I guess we all live somewhere between these two poles: the open heart of love and some level of hypocrisy. If you want to know where your weak points are, think of what really gets under your skin, makes you react – but not in a good way. By the way, I love that phrase ‘get under your skin’ because often these reactions are in our bodies – we will stiffen up, our stomach turns over, our flesh crawls. What sorts of people might make us react like that? A homeless man begging with a dog? A man with a long beard and a turban? Someone with piercings? A drug addict? Or someone else? Might be something really trivial. I know some of the things that get under my skin and my reactions are not pretty. We will need to reflect on these – why does this person make me react so badly? Why do I want to criticise or rebuke? What’s underneath it? It might be a very unwelcome truth about you or me. Once we see it and are aware of it, we can begin to bring it into the light. Which can be difficult. There isn’t a magic wand, our reactions can be very deeply rooted.
This morning we have overheard a family row in our gospel reading and considered what hypocrisy means: pretending to be what we’re not. We have seen how deeply negative thoughts and feelings can hide behind a cloak of ritual, of appearance. And that religious people – that’s you and me – are particularly prone to this. We thought about the phrase a divided heart. Then we reflected on what an undivided heart looks like and read a bit of the love-poem of Song of Solomon to catch a glimpse of what that is like. And looked within ourselves and, I hope, found that at a deep level within us, we know what this means: it is within our human experience. We moved on to think about how the most profound truth about who we are, you and me, is as a beloved child of God, a sister or brother to Jesus. The invitation this morning is this. Firstly, to accept, allow in, to bask in that truth, to find our centre. “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away!” Because this is what we are made for. Secondly to see what it is that trips us up in that other person, and then to lift up the stone and see what crawls out from underneath it. Lifting up the stone brings it into the light. ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name’ (Ps 86:11). ‘My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away!”’ (Song 2:10)
Mark 6 v 30-34 and 53 to the end.
Meeting God when we are busy
We meet up with friends maybe after a service on a Sunday morning and we ask the time-honoured conversation starter “how have you been?” and after a pause for thought one of the stock answers that we give is “Busy”. This is usually true – no matter where we are, whether working or retired, with a young family or with children grown up, whether in a family or living alone – we are almost always busy. So, there is a truth in our reply, is it just observational, is our reply something of a complaint or is a subtle attempt at bragging? It can be both.
We probably have this love-hate relationship with being busy. On the one hand we are stressed and strained by being busy but on the other hand, we probably quite like it because it gives us a sense of value and importance, we are helping making a difference.
So, in our conversations we may complain about it to the people we are talking and perhaps even to God but at the same time we are probably reluctant to give it up.
This may well present us with a dilemma because as spiritual people we become aware that our being busy often robs us of an awareness of God’s presence. We get so focussed on those outward demands and the pressures of the day; the here and now crowds in; leaving little time or space to focus either inward or upward. Yet at the same time much of our being busy may be necessary and good. Our lives may be filled with doing things to please God or serve him. To be good providers and taking care of others.
We find ourselves strained by this.
In the gospel reading today the text provides a remarkable description of the demands made on the time and energy of Jesus and the disciples. They are trying to fill Jesus in on all that they have done but they can’t manage it because of all the people coming and going. So, Jesus suggests they go away for some time together. But this just lands them in the middle of another large crowd.
How do you think this made the disciples feel? Earlier in the chapter Jesus had sent them out two by two taking nothing for the journey, no bread, no bag or money. They had preached, driven out demons and anointed sick people who had been healed. I have to say, to me, that feels pretty intense and making a lot of demands on them. I expect they were exhilarated, exhausted, hungry, bewildered, not fully understanding what was happening, having loads of questions, needing to refocus. And many more feelings besides.
There will be periods in our own lives where there will be high demands and maybe for you that is the default setting. In those times you may be looking to get away from it. How would you feel if that got interrupted?
Jesus is caring for his disciples, wanting to give them his undivided attention and to help them get some rest. This is interrupted but his response to the interruption is not frustration or resentment but compassion.
So, if we are feeling the strained by being busy how do we keep ourselves connected to God aware of his presence? If we are to live spiritual lives, does it mean giving up, at least some of, the activities we are engaged in? or does it mean adding something else, some spiritual disciplines to the already demanding day? Is this something we might ask ourselves?
Is this the right question though. Perhaps what we need to wrestle with goes deeper and may bring clarity if we are confused, feeling guilty or anxious about this.
Perhaps the question we might need to ask is “what is life about: what truly matters? When we have lived out our lives what was it about that will offer us the deepest sense of satisfaction and joy?
I think spiritual disciplines are a good thing and were/are never intended to be a chore, a task or just one more demand on over-burdened schedules.
Spiritual disciplines are simply doorways to our hearts, to intimacy with God. They are opportunities to open ourselves in heart and mind to his love, his wisdom and direction, to his blessing, his healing and help, to his presence.
Our relationship with God is not about one more thing to do. It is not another demand. Our relationship with God is meant to be the centre from which our life’s activities flow.
In his book Making All Things New Henri Nouwen wrote:
“Jesus does not respond to our worry filled way of living by saying we should not be so busy with worldly affairs…. He does not tell us that what we do is unimportant, valueless or useless…. Jesus’ response to our worry filled lives is quite different. He asks us to shift the point of gravity, to relocate the centre of our attention, to change our priorities. Jesus wants us to move from the “many things” to the “one necessary thing” …. Jesus does not speak about a change of activities, a change of contacts, or even a change of pace. He speaks about a change of heart. This change of heart makes everything different, even while everything appears to remain the same. This is the meaning of “Set your hearts on his kingdom first… and all these other things will be given you as well.”
I thought it might be helpful to briefly explore some spiritual disciplines to see if there is the possibility of finding God when we are busy. Perhaps to reorder to place God in the centre and see what we discover by doing that.
There are six I would like to touch on.
- Scripture study
So, Scripture study – God’s word is one of our greatest resources for knowing him. Jesus endorsed scripture. He knew it; taught and lived by it; fulfilled it! God does not use his word to primarily impart information but to guide our feet, shape our lives. If we are to avoid our being busy becoming empty and just activity for the sake of it and to withstand the pressures we are under and have God’s values then we need to absorb his word.
There is one scripture I remember above all others from my teenage years with the youth group at this church; Romans 12 v2 (J B Phillips version) “Do not let the world squeeze you into its mould” which is the first half of the verse. The second half (which I don’t always remember) is be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
Confession – the temptations we face in our busy lives are many. Temptations to pride. Temptations to neglect the people in our lives. Temptations to step on others in order to “get ahead”. Temptations to take short cuts which are less than honest. Temptations to be self-focused.
The discipline of confession offers us an opportunity to invite God’s Spirit to correct us where we need correcting and to call us to repentance when we need to turn. Confession opens the door to forgiveness and to positive, life giving change. It is a discipline which builds us into people of integrity – honest, fair and loving in all that we do and say.
God calls us to be honest – honest with ourselves, with him and with each other. He does not want us to be defensive (it has taken me a long time to work on this) or blind, but to be open to him so that he can teach us to love as he loves. Confession is an opportunity to tell the truth about the ways we have hurt ourselves and others by turning from God’s way of love.
Community – being busy can isolate us. We may do a lot of activity and keep us in contact with others, but it may prevent us from developing the deep relationships we need. We were created for relationship with God and with each other. Being an introvert, this is something I find difficult and have to work at and sometimes feel on the edge of this fellowship despite worshipping here for more than 40 years. In 1 Peter 1 v 15-16 it calls us to “Be holy because I am holy”. Apparently, the word in Greek is in the plural. The call to holiness is primarily a communal one. We are called to be holy together, in the way we relate, in the way we communicate, in the way we respect, defend, pray for, worship with, and challenge each other. We are called to be in community and it is in such community that is where the life of the people of God is.
Silence – For many of us the disciplines of silence and meditation are the most difficult to pursue. We want to do something. Sometimes, however, God wants us simply to come before him and wait.
Again, as an introvert, a person who recharges their batteries by spending time alone, whose first response is to go to the inner world of thoughts and feelings rather than the outer world of action and interaction. You would think that I would find this easy. However, while I went on silent retreats and looked forward to them immensely; every time I went, and without fail it would take me up to a day to achieve a level of inner silence to match the outer silence of the setting and there was a direct corelation with the amount of activity and stress that had occurred before I got there.
But the struggle was worthwhile as God would meet me there and by the end my perspective would invariably be very different. At times I was able to look back and realise that God had been present without me being aware.
We see silence and solitude throughout the Old Testament, think of Elijah and his journey into the wilderness, Abraham’s journey to sacrifice Isacc and Jesus would withdraw to pray. But even right at the beginning of the scripture we read of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Why would you walk in a garden – to find space?
Henri Nouwen again – “Although the discipline of solitude asks us to set aside time and space, what finally matters is that our hearts become like quiet cells where God can dwell, wherever we go and whatever we do”.
Obedience – either side of the verses for our gospel reading today were instances of Jesus giving instructions to the disciples, first sending them out two by two and then in the feeding of the 5000 using their five loaves and two fish, part of this intense and demanding time they are having with Jesus.
They listened and followed. Their efforts were multiplied and blessed many. God wants us to stay close by his side so he can guide and teach and care for us. He wants us to walk with him, loving and caring. This is the call to obedience. As we practice the discipline of obedience and watch God’s will unfold in our lives, we will grow in our trust of God’s tremendous love for us and our desire to continue this discipline will grow even stronger.
Prayer – it can happen to any of us that we can find ourselves too busy to pray, so caught up in all that we have to do that we lose our awareness of God’s presence and of our constant need for him. But it does not have to be like this. Even in the midst of life’s demands we can stay connected to God asking for help and direction for an ongoing awareness of his presence.
Especially, when we are busy, we need prayer more than ever as we strive to cope with the demands placed on us. Jesus would feel sapped of his strength at times and would need renewing and without this would have nothing to give. So, it has to be true for us.
Life may be busy but we can find God in the midst of it. I hope by reflecting on these spiritual disciplines we can, with God’s help, reorder our world placing our true heart’s desire at the centre of all things. I pray that we will discover peace and joy which come when we practice the presence of God in all that we do and in every place that we go.