The 2nd Sunday in Lent 2015
One of the set books in English when I was at school was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Our teacher encouraged us to act out scenes, improvising, 3 of us were chosen, I was to be Dracula! I bared my teeth, menacingly. The other two approached me, each clutching a cardboard crucifix.
“Oh dear,” one of them said rather, woodenly. “Here…is…Dracula.” “What shall I do?” cried the other, with just a little more realism. “Er… show him your cross?” So the other one shouted, “You stupid, brainless vampire!”
Perhaps only in English can “your cross” and “you are cross” sound the same. And does any other language use the same word for “angry” and for the symbol of our Christian faith?
Mark’s Gospel today contains both meanings of “cross”. Jesus gets very cross when Peter rebukes him for declaring that he must suffer and die, as he would do on the cross. Even though Peter has just recognised Jesus as the Messiah, he doesn’t believe what Jesus then goes on to tell him that this role entails. Jesus hears Peter’s protest, but recognises the source: tempting him again, just as he had in the forty days in the wilderness. “Get behind me, Satan.” we heard this morning, in Matthew’s version, Jesus even continues: “You are a stumbling block to me.” It wasn’t Peter he was angry with, but the temptation being thrown in his own path, to think in human terms rather than accept his divine task.
Sometimes the Gospel is difficult to believe. Too good to be true, that God should love us so much! In today’s other readings we hear of God’s promise to a 99-year-old Abraham and his elderly, barren wife Sarah, that they will have offspring, and their descendants will be whole nations of believers. What starts as one or two people believing can have huge results. In the Gospel, Jesus encourages his followers to believe. He needs their support for the hugely difficult task ahead of him. And he needs them to proclaim the Gospel after his death and resurrection. Otherwise, his sacrifice might all be in vain. No wonder he got cross!
For Jesus too needed to believe in his destiny, his task to reconcile people with God. On the cross, Jesus, both human and divine, would restore the balance of the universe, as sin was defeated by love. He would bring about the ultimate reconciliation, between the God who created the universe and the people God loves, made in God’s own image. But because Jesus was also human, it was a difficult cross to bear. Remember his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane? 'as he sweated drops of blood - take this cup away from me - but your will be done!
And because Jesus was human, he knew anger. He threw the money-lenders out of the temple, for using God’s house to drain money from those who could ill afford it. And he got very cross indeed with the hypocritical Pharisees, who claimed to serve God yet reduced faith to a list of rules and regulations.
Being angry is part of being human. And it isn’t necessarily wrong. It depends on what you’re angry about, and what you do with the anger. Rather than being angry with people, Jesus is angry with the evil they do. The evil we all do. And as Jesus prepares to carry his own cross, to the place of his execution, he tells his disciples, he tells us, who believe in him, to take up our cross, too. Surely this means following the example of Jesus, of self-sacrifice and total commitment, to set our minds on divine things as well as human ones: love God with all our heart, and love our neighbours as ourselves.
And once we take up our cross, we do get cross…about injustice, exploitation, war, poverty. It’s inevitable. Can we turn that anger into action, in the way that Jesus did? We can certainly pray, as Jesus did, that God’s kingdom may come, God’s will be done. Pray daily for peace, for justice.
But we can also give, as Jesus gave himself. “This is my body, given for you.” We too can give: money, perhaps, to the Church, to charities and relief organisations. But also time: to visit people who are lonely or unwell, work as a volunteer, write to newspapers or MPs, perhaps even attend protest marches. We must also give time to listen, to listen to those who think differently from us, who may even find it easier to believe in “undead” vampires than in the life-giving God.
In small ways and in big, we can turn righteous anger into action. Believing in Jesus, we can, we must work in his name towards a better world and it is no good saying that it starts with someone else - it begins with us. Part of this Lenten journey is about us reflecting on, thinking about, responding to, the demands of God's love for us
So… do not be afraid to showyou are cross with righteous anger! But always be ready show your cross! The cross you carry for Jesus.
2015 Evensong Sunday 8th February Luke 8:26-39
At the age of 15 I read the book 'The Cross and the Switchblade' - it was considered to be the story for all teenage Christians to read and was subsequently made into a film. It told the story of a minister in New York City, and centred on the life changing story of Nicky Cruz, who was considered to be a hopeless case. Brought up in a rough part of Puerto Rico, even his spiritualist parents found his behaviour too much to handle. His mother labelled him Satan’s child and sent him to live with his brother in New York. But Nicky ran away and began a life of violent crime fuelled by drink and drugs, eventually becoming the leader of a notorious 1950s New York gang. He was arrested countless times and a court psychiatrist is described in Nicky’s own biography, Run Baby Run, as saying the only future for Nicky was the electric chair.
But his life was not doomed. Through the work of the street preacher David Wilkerson, he discovered the love of Jesus and became a Christian. His life was utterly transformed; he has spent the last fifty years working as a worldwide evangelist and has set up organisations to help troubled teens overcome the problems that once cursed him.
This evening, we heard of another man who was considered a hopeless case and how an encounter with Jesus transformed him, too.
Luke shows us that this was no chance encounter, Jesus, he tells us, had made a decision to cross over the Sea of Galilee into this Gentile territory. His journey appears to have had the sole purpose of meeting this desperate man.
Luke has described Jesus dealing with demons before, but this is an extreme case. This man was tormented by not just one spirit but a legion, indicating a vast number, as a Roman legion consisted of up to 6,000 men! People had tried to prevent this man from hurting himself by restraining him in chains but he was so strong when worked up into a frenzy that he’d simply snapped his bonds. He lived as a wild man where no one else dared to go: amongst the desolate and deserted tombs – naked, howling and harming himself with rocks (is how Mark in his gosple describes him.). He was beyond human help.
Yet Luke shows Jesus transform this desperate man. Christ had a power to help that others had not, for Christ’s power was of God. He exercised divine authority over evil, terrifying this horde of demons and driving them out with a simple command. This troubled man, considered beyond hope, was now restored to full health. Indeed, he is even described as sitting at Jesus’ feet – a sign of a committed disciple. It is no wonder that shortly after this event, Peter, the disciple, finally understood that Jesus was not just a teacher, but God’s Messiah (Luke 9:20).
Many people think of Jesus as just a good man. Luke makes it clear that he was much more: he was divine. Christ possessed God’s incredible compassion and his almighty power. Jesus demonstrated God’s boundless love when he crossed over a tumultuous stormy sea into a foreign land with the sole purpose of helping just one desperate man. Christ showed he possessed God’s authority and power over even the most terrifying evil by driving out a host of unclean spirits, completely transforming this man’s life.
But are such dramatic transformations things of the past? Is the compassion Jesus had for the desperate and the power he had to change their lives something only effective when Christ dwelt on earth? Luke would say no, for in the book of Acts he describes Christ as continuing to turn lives around even though, by then, he had ascended to heaven. He shows Christ doing this through the activity of the Holy Spirit and by the Spirit’s empowering of his disciples to carry on his transforming work. Furthermore, the amazing conversion of Nicky Cruz demonstrates that God’s Spirit is still revolutionising lives today.
People had given up on both the demoniac and Nicky Cruz. They had tried to help them again and again but without success. We too may know people and encounter circumstances that seem beyond hope: people whose problems appear completely insurmountable, circumstances that seem so black that there seems no escape from them, places so desperate that life there goes only from bad to worse. The stories of the demoniac and of Nicky Cruz and many more, possibly our own; encourage us to have hope even when faced with the hopeless: to keep on praying and seeking the power, compassion and wisdom of Christ in these situations, believing that God does care, that he can work through us and he can change things – for if God can transform these two desperate men, God can change anyone and any situation. WE are not called to keep this good news to ourselves. Jesus made a specific journey. He had heard of a particular need and went to help. What are the needs that surround us - where might God be calling us to help either as individuals or as his Church? One of the things that I am very keen to hear at the moment are what are the specific needs of our community here in Uckfield. Where are the gasp in provision to support people in their lives. So that as God's church we might be able to provide services that meet those needs for the unemployed, those in debt possibly, or those who have relational difficulties , estranged fathers who wish to meet their children. What are the needs - where are the gaps where we can help - so that like the demoniac, like Nicky Cruz, others may come to the feet of Jesus as his disciples.
2015 The 2nd Sunday before Lent Sunday 8th February
As human beings we are fascinated by questions of our roots, our origins. There is an ever growing industry to help us search for our ancestry, to develop our “family tree”. But there are also the bigger questions about he origins of our world, how did we begin? We may question the answers of Stephen Hawking, but his life is a remarkable story which has now been made into a film - 'The theory of everything'. Three is that natural desire to know - to discover and every now and then there is the excited reporting of new discoveries about the beginnings of the universe, we love insights into where we came from, and how we have developed as we have.
Most civilisations have creation stories of various kinds and the point of these stories, rather like the point of genealogical exploration, is not just to speculate about facts, but to help to bring meaning and pattern to our understanding of ourselves and our world. Where we came from helps to shape what and who we are.
In The Magician’s Nephew, one of his Narnia Chronicles, C.S. Lewis imagines the creation of his fictional world, Narnia. The lion, Aslan, the great Christ-figure in these stories, sings the world into being and the human children who are watching the birth of this new world begin to see connections between the sound and shape of the lion’s music and the things that come into existence. So, as the lion sings deep, lasting notes, fir trees spring up, whereas swift, light notes produce primroses. Creation is not random, but full of patterns and meaning.
In the book of Genesis we are given a reflection on the truth that God is good and wanted to share his goodness and his love and so created the world in all its glory and wonder that human beings may live in a wonderful relationship with him, we are told how the Spirit of God, the Word of God, hovered over the waters and brought everything to life in a wonderful order - sadly that relationship with God was marred and that accounts for the brokenness that we see - evil tempted and humanity gave in.
John’s Gospel claims that creation is indeed full of patterns and meaning, and that that is because God chooses that it will be so, and deliberately communicates those meanings to us. God speaks the Word, the intelligible, illuminating presence of God, into creation, and then this Word takes the even more unthinkably radical step of becoming not just intelligible by us but present with us, in human form.
So John is arguing that our fascination with creation, with how it works, where it came from and where we fit into it, arises because God the Creator makes creation accessible to us, by a deliberate act of grace. God communicates with us, and draws us into this puzzling, tantalising relationship with our world.
But while most creation stories from ancient times believe that the gods relate to the human world in various ways, the Christian account of creation says that that is not enough. The true God makes the world to share his own life with it: John says we are called to be God’s children, and that it is this relationship which the Word in human form comes to give us - to restore our relationship with God. The Word is truly, naturally, the Son of God, but we, who have come into being through the agency of the Word, can be drawn into that place, that home, through the gracious action of the Word made flesh.
When God the Word comes to live with us, what he offers us is not more facts about the origins of the universe, but an invitation into the creative, life-giving force from which the universe pours out. God the Son offers us the “power to become children of God”. The universe is born out of the love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so huge that it overflows, and has space for us, too.
John’s Gospel is telling us about the essential, inbuilt pattern of the universe, from which all meaning flows. This pattern derives from the nature of the God who brought everything into being, and so it is about relating. The Father’s relationship with the Son imprints on the universe, through the power of the Spirit.
All of that still sounds abstract until we begin to apply it to our lives. If this loving, overflowing, generous love is the true nature of the world, then if we are to begin to understand the world we live in, and try to live in harmony with it, rather than in conflict, then we need to start patterning our own actions around this essential truth. What we are aiming for in all we do is to enter further and further into our inheritance, our family tree, our nature as the children of God, created by him in his image and likeness.
That means that if we are to understand ourselves and our world, we need to prioritise our relationship with God and with each other under God. In everything we undertake, we need to ask first and foremost how it will help to build relationships - with God - within the church - from the church to the world - through us with those who are our neighbours? Of course it doesn't just stop there. Every facet of life should be focused by our foundational relationship with God the creator. That means that as God's Church we are called to stand up, to put our heads above the parapet, to challenge within solidity, to be involved in debates about every aspect of how society works. Because God is loving, creative, redeeming so we must reflect that same loving, creative, redeeming nature of the God who draws us into his own life. and we must challenge the world around us to begin to look again at what is right and good and how life should be lived with God.