From Lent to Easter 2021

Palm Sunday

Readings: Zechariah 9.9-10; Psalm 118;  Mark 11. 1-11

The journey from Jericho to Jerusalem is just over 25 km, but what a difference those 25 kms make. Jericho is 800m below sea level, and Jerusalem is 3000m above sea level.  It begins in the intense, repressive heat of Jericho and for those walking through the hot, dry and dangerous desert towards Jerusalem, it will emerge on the verdant slopes of the Mount of Olives.  For pilgrims walking this journey to any Festival, particularly the Passover, their arrival on the Mount of Olives after such a journey would have been one of joy to see Jerusalem and the glittering Golden Gate just across the valley. But what of Jesus knowing what this journey entailed and how it would end?  No wonder we see Jesus looking towards Jerusalem with a heavy heart, with a sadness for this city of God and for the destruction and conflict it would suffer in the coming decades. I suspect he really would want to gather them and protect them as a hen protects her chicks. 

The road runs on through the villages of Bethpage and Bethany before the final climb up to the gates of Jerusalem.  It was here that they stopped and Jesus sent two of his disciples ahead to collect the donkey, a colt that had never been ridden before. So, the scene was set for the King of Peace to enter his city as Zechariah had prophesised 500 years before, and it was the humble donkey who was at the heart of this entry into Jerusalem.

It is only in relatively recent times that the donkey has been seen as a beast of burden, as a comical creature.  In Palestine the donkey was the transport of kings, and a herald of peace.  Whenever a ruler approached another territory a donkey laden with gifts preceded him, to signify that he came in peace, or even to appease the wrath of the other.  The choice of Jesus riding into Jerusalem encapsulated this.  Firstly, as the representative of God he came in peace, and secondly, he himself was the gift of peace on the laden donkey.  

It was in this way that Jesus and his disciples joined in the throng who were making their way up to the gate into Jerusalem. To start with they were just part of the usual joy and excitement of every pilgrim visiting Jerusalem for a festival. It would be evident in the singing, dancing and praying as they made for the city gate on this festival of hope.  Gradually the crowd began to see this man on a donkey, some even recognised him or associated him with stories they had heard, and a new dimension emerged.  There was no doubt they recognised something of his significance for they threw down their cloaks and tore branches off the palms to strew in his way. It was only kings, or people of supreme importance, who warranted such accolades.  But who was it that they thought they were welcoming?  Had they noticed that he was riding a donkey, did they know Zechariah’s prophecy? Or was it a vague knowledge of that prophecy, an outline out-line they could colour in as they wished? 

No doubt their thoughts and hopes sped back to a much more glorious time of some 160 years before when something similar had happened.  It was prior to this time that the Syrian leader Antiochus IV had tried to force the Jews to accept Greek practices instead of their own.  He even took over the Temple and used it as a shrine to the Greek god Zeus.  The resulting Jewish revolt was led primarily by the Maccabeus family, successively by the father and then three sons.  The successes of that revolt included Jews retaking control of the city and Temple characterised by Simon Maccabeus riding into Jerusalem as a victorious warrior king on a white charger.  The Jewish Feast of Hanukkah is in memory of that first cleansing of the temple by Judas Maccabeus.  Today as Jesus rode into the city the crowd may well have assumed that it was happening again.  But Jesus was fully aware of Zechariah’s ancient words.

Such was the fever-pitched excitement and expectation of that day that they failed to notice that this time Jesus was riding on a donkey.  A king no doubt, but certainly not the warrior king they wanted, this time to get rid of the Romans.  The donkey has another significant part to play, it signifies the real prophet.  The interest of false prophets would be upon earthly glory and prestige. The humble donkey which Jesus rode was far from that. It further signifies the early beginnings of their faith when Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 21.3), and equating Jesus with the sacrifice, not the glory.

It is here that the chronology of the synoptics gospels goes a little array.  Matthew and Luke have Jesus entering the city and straightway making for the Temple and throwing out all the commercial aspects.  Mark also has him going to the Temple, but only just to look around and see for himself, before returning to Bethany with his disciples.  It is the following day that the Temple pandemonium breaks out in Mark’s gospel.  Does this time delay matter? For some it is significant because Mark is showing that it is Jesus who is completely in control of events, it is him deciding the time schedule and indeed the final battle.  The other effect of this time delay is to begin to understand the crowd who were so fully supportive at his entry, but then began to ebb away so that within a few days they were calling for Jesus to be crucified.  There was no way that the original support for Jesus would have accepted anything less than complete victory, but perhaps they had had time to read the signs and reflect on what messages Jesus was giving.  They had hoped for their own version of the Messiah, but Jesus was having none of it. Jesus succumbed to no-one’s ideals, ruler, pilgrim or the citizen.

So, the journey of Holy Week began for them, and begins for us.  The question is still there.  What kind of Jesus do we look for?  Is it the Jesus that fulfils the wants within us, or does Jesus go far beyond our limited horizons and fulfils the wants that we ourselves are blind to see?  Perhaps the humble donkey learned more on that day than we humans, even Christians, ever have.

 The Donkey
by G. K. Chesterton         

     When fishes flew and forests walk’d
          And figs grew upon the thorn,
      Some moment when the moon was blood
          Then surely I was born.

     With monstrous head and sickening cry
          And ears like errant wings,
     The devil’s walking parody
          Of all four-footed things.

     The tatter’d outlaw of the earth
          Of ancient crooked will:
     Starve, scourge, deride me, I am dumb,
          I keep my secret still.

     Fools! For I also had my hour,
          One far fierce hour and sweet;
     There was a shout about my ears,
          And palms before my feet”.                               

Hey this is me 
adapted from a poem by Pat Marsh

“Hey this is me…….
And I want to say
I’m not the me you seem to think I am.”
O Lord help me to see what you really are,
to put aside those things that I want you to be,
to leave behind the things that I think you ought to be.
Help me to see the peace that you herald,
if I can just put aside my own mis-conceptions.
Help me to see the King entering my life
and riding on a donkey
with nothing but my peace as his hope.

Open my eyes, Lord
and help me to see the bits that I am blind to,
To accept the bits that I am ashamed of,
and the bits that terrify me.

Help me to look deeper,
deeper than I really want to.
You see me as I really am,
help me to see it also.

You love me as I really am,
with no need of the façade,
that I keep in-front of others,
or even myself!

And seeing it, help me to accept it
so that before you,
I, too, can say,
“Hey this is me, the me you have made,
This is the me whom you have redeemed.”

I am the reason for all that you bore that day.
I am the reason for the pain of Calvary.
Yet I can be the glory that you released there.
Help me, Lord, to both be it and live it.

Passion Sunday

Readings: Jeremiah 31.31-34 ;  Hebrews 5.5-10;  John 12.20-33

This Sunday is known as ‘Passion Sunday’, when the inevitability of the cross emerges.  The distinct possibility that had already existed in the minds of the disciples during Jesus’ ministry now became absolute certainty. As Jesus says, a grain of wheat remains nothing but a grain of wheat if it lives, but if it dies then it will produce much more.  The cross is at the heart of God’s redemptive action in Jesus.  So, to us who have pondered if there could be any other way for God to express his love of the world other than as it happened, the answer is clearly no!  This is the only way that God could fulfil his love for the world.

In John’s gospel there is no ‘Gethsemane time’, but this reading is at this gospel moment when the anguish and struggle of Jesus emerges as he contemplates that end. “Father, do not let this hour come upon me”. His greatest desire is that it should be removed from him.  It is for this perilous moment that John has reserved God’s affirmation of Jesus, which the Synoptic gospels use at Christ’s baptism or transfiguration.  Here now is where Jesus needs that affirmation. Here now is the moment that John sees the world’s need of that affirmation.  Here is God’s glory and fullness of love in the very heart of the worst that humankind can do and in the very heart of religious exclusivity, even in the chances of life itself.

Today’s other lectionary readings offer a very powerful contribution to the message.  Let us begin with the Jeremiah reading which is far greater than other prophesies of the Old Testament.  This is God’s promise to his people, through Jeremiah, that he will seal a new covenant, a covenant fully dependent upon God, asking nothing of his people.   It is a promise that a time is coming that he will act in a way that is completely different from anything they might expect. A way leading them back to where they will have a new and different relationship with Him. This is of course an exact expression of Jesus Christ.  It doesn’t end there and if you read on a few verses to Chapter 32 you will see the impact of this promise on Jeremiah. He immediately buys a field! This may seem a somewhat strange reaction but to understand it we need to grasp the full significance of all that was going on in Judah at the time.  Judah was surrounded by the Babylonians who were about to overrun it. The plight of Judah was hopeless. Yet Jeremiah bought the field as a sign that God would still look out for them. 

In our own experience it could be compared to buying a house in London’s East End at the height of the blitz of the second World War. Nobody in their right mind would do such a ridiculous thing.  Yet Jeremiah did, and in Jesus Christ we see that covenant being enacted directly in Jesus. Far more than generalised prophecies, this was the promise of a completely new and different relationship with God and Jeremiah fully committed himself to it.

The reading from the letter to the Hebrews introduces a character and a situation which is at the very heart of it. The person introduced here is Melchizedek, a shadowy figure who appears just twice in the Old Testament, yet a figure who puts a whole new focus on the events happening or about to happen in Jerusalem.  The first place we hear of Melchizedek is in Genesis 14 meeting the wandering Abram and his entourage, and most importantly blessing him. There has been endless scholarship in trying to find out who Melchizedek was, but the certainty is that he stretches far back into Hebrew history.  Some of their literature suggests that he precedes Noah, quoting the fact that Noah’s son Shem was nicknamed Melchizedek.  Melchizedek is there at the centre of creation from its beginning, and causes Philo, the ancient Greek writer, to see him as the Logos, part of God.  The writer of John’s gospel did also, and it is in the powerful introduction to this gospel that Jesus is introduced as such, the Logos, the word of God, the deity that was with God during the creation of the world. 

So suddenly, with the help of the reading from Hebrews, we see the true identity and challenge of Jesus emerge, a picture not of man but of part of God.  It begins to make sense. Christ is not here defined as the Messiah so desperately sought by Israel to overthrow their invaders and to restore them.  It is the Priest of the Order of Melchizedek, the logos and originator of creation.  One of our communion prayers relates to Jesus as the “Great High Priest who has ascended into the heavens”. But this could not be Jesus since all Jewish priests had to be descended from Aaron which Jesus was not, unless he was of a different priestly order.  Jesus, our great high priest is found in Psalm 110, a psalm of King David.  Unlike the Jewish priests who were there by right of ancestry, Jesus was a high priest of God made absolutely certain in that psalm where he is disclosed as the Priest of the “Most High”, a title synonymous with God himself. 

Yet, there is something  even more significant that we need to be aware of in Genesis 14 and this is the manner of the blessing of Abram by Melchizedek which he gives in the gifts of bread and wine. God, on that very first occasion was given in the gifts of Bread and Wine and this remains significant in all Jewish festivals, especially the Passover, as the blessing of God.  It is likely that Jesus was using these gifts of bread and wine to finally, and completely disclose his own true identity. There are various speculations as to why the people suddenly turned against Jesus in that final week. Could it be that in this disclosure  he was saying with great certainty that he was not their sought-after ‘political Messiah’. That first blessing of God was given in bread and wine, still the central heart of our Christian faith.

More recently our Christian Services have taken on different styles and approaches. We have filled them with words, confessions, creeds and teaching, none of which happened with Abram.  Abram simply received, with grace, the gifts of God, and which Jeremiah later foresaw, the gifts of bread and wine.  There is the heart of receiving and celebrating God’s blessing on us.  We may try hard to do other things in our Services, even in our daily life and concern for each other. All this we do very well perhaps even better in some respects than what priests themselves do in the Holy Communion. However, we must first be prepared to receive God’s blessing on us, and it is this blessing given in bread and wine which will make whatever else we do wholesome, even if the priest doesn’t do it as well as we might like! That act is simply receiving God’s blessing without reservation. Nothing more is required.

So, our trilogy of readings for this Passion Sunday has opened up much of our history. From these readings it is seen that Holy Communion, the receiving of bread and wine is the fundamental heart of our own covenant with God, which is of course why priests pay so much attention to it.  It is not a history which is modifiable or changeable. It is a history we can grow and develop from.  For it is not our history that is at its centre, it is God’s history which we have been privileged to be invited to partake of. How then do we as Christians live up to that, or even live with, that?  Simply by accepting with awe the blessings that God pours upon us as Abram did. For Christians that has to be at the table of Holy Communion, as it was for Abram and much later in response to Jesus’ invitation. Then by committing ourselves to where he will lead us, as Jeremiah did.  Acceptance and hope are the true hallmarks of faith. Those were the only things that carried the human Jesus through the trials, pain and agony of those final days. They were sufficient for him, surely then they should be sufficient for us. Today’s readings then are our ‘Desert Island’ trilogy of faith, the story we must never leave behind.

Dwelling in the Psalms, a Healing Journey
by Pat Marsh (based on Psalm 110, 2-4)

This is the word of God,
to my Lord,
the Messiah.                          

sit at my right hand;
share my power
and authority.
I will hand you
my sceptre;
you will be
a priest for all nations,
a priest of a new order.

Your kingly rule
will be established
beyond Zion.
Your enemies will be subdued
and many
will serve you gladly.
You shall shine with holiness
and your strength
will be renewed
like the morning dew.
Your priestly reign
will last forever.
This is my solemn vow.

Prayer from the same source

Father, thank you for Jesus.
Thank you that you spoke these words
through King David
long before the coming of your Son among us.

Thank you
for David’s listening heart.

Father, deepen in us
our capacity to hear you,
strengthen in us
our courage to trust you,
and grow in us
the wisdom to discern your will.

(Thanks to Karen and Andrew Armbrister for this resource)

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: Numbers 21.4-9; Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-21 (referring also to 1-13)

Today’s  gospel reading places a new significance on one particular event in Jerusalem following the cleansing of the Temple.  In John the events following that Temple event had far more wide reaching effects than it did within the Temple walls.  We see the impact upon those with ultimate legal authority and the cracks appearing in their resolve. It was through John’s account of Nicodemus that we see the event unfolding.  Who was this man, Nicodemus?  From what we read in John, Nicodemus is certainly a man of some importance as a member of the Sanhedrin.  From the information we have we are unable to identify Nicodemus in any great detail, other than to conclude that he was a person of some considerable influence in Jerusalem at that time.  The mere fact that Nicodemus approached Jesus underlines that Jesus was making a considerable impact on the city and religious matters at that time.  Perhaps it even suggests that there was some discontent within the city, and even with the Sanhedrin things weren’t quite as they should be.  Nicodemus, after hearing about or even seeing, the furore in the Temple went to Jesus to see at first-hand what this man was all about and our gospel reading is based upon the dialogue between him and Jesus. 

There are differing views as to Nicodemus’ role.  Some suggest that by coming at night, he was fearful of what others would think of him, a weak man perhaps.  Others see him as a spy from the Sanhedrin, whilst still others see him as a person genuinely seeking after truth.  The first two of these ideas do not generally hold water since there were many others were very openly antagonistic towards Jesus at the time. Specifically, Nicodemus did not challenge Jesus as to who he was, but  openly declared that he accepted the great things that Jesus was doing accepting that Jesus must be from God.  The speculation around Nicodemus seems to stem from the fact that he came to Jesus at night. Yet if we were to consider the more elaborated details of the Galilean ministry in the Synoptic gospels, we find that it was the night when Jesus spent time with his disciples and explaining to them the finer details of either his teaching or other matters.  It would not be surprising that it was in a similar style in Jerusalem, and could explain why Nicodemus would choose to come to Jesus at this time to speak deeply with Jesus.  It would seem a reasonable conclusion that Nicodemus was indeed a genuine seeker after the truth in regard to the ministry of Jesus.

Unfortunately for Nicodemus it was not as easy as it seemed.  What Jesus explained to him he just could not understand.  The whole idea of being born again in life was inexplicable to his knowledge of life, what Jesus was demanding demanded a seismic shift in understanding and the harder Nicodemus tried to fathom it the further away it seemed to get.  Probably because of Nicodemus’ position in the Sanhedrin Jesus certainly used language which was highly theological but the main thrust was that God did not send his son to judge the world but to be its saviour.  Love would prove, in the end, to be far stronger than judgement.

Nicodemus, failing to grasp it, left but he certainly did not give up on either on Jesus, or on what Jesus was doing.  We see Nicodemus again in Chapter 7, where he stands up strongly for the rights of Jesus when the prevailing feeling was very much against him at the time.  Finally, we see Nicodemus in Chapter 19 at the burial of Jesus.  Whilst the friends of Jesus had forsaken him, we see Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea anointing the body of Jesus and laying him in the tomb.

The story of Nicodemus thus leaves us with a conundrum. Far from being someone who rejected Jesus, we find him still there at crucial moments, even moments when the people we would have expected to be there weren’t.  It was Nicodemus, perhaps still struggling with understanding, but who is there right to the end.  How do we put this into perspective, and what can we, as modern-day Christians and churches learn from it? 

It certainly challenges our ideas of faith, and of the Holy Spirit.  Nicodemus is there in the beginning because he is searching for answers.  He is probably there at the end still searching for answers, but instead of giving up on it as most did, he stayed there and did what he could for Jesus. 

The question is asked of whether Nicodemus was saved or not, because there was never a word from him accepting Jesus as Lord.  But Nicodemus did two things most of us fail to do, he kept on searching and he remained until the end.  If there is anything that the love Jesus speaks about as overcoming judgement, surely Nicodemus is the example of it.  Since we have been using the Gospel of John for our readings this question of searching has always been there, it is not in certainty that we find glimpses of faith but in the searching and struggles of life. The Spirit of God doesn’t always lead us easily to the answers, perhaps instead inspiring us to search through the struggles to find answers to our lives.  Jimmy Carter defined faith thus, “To me faith is not just a noun, but a verb”.  It is the searching in our own lives for the things of importance and the things of hope.  Yet how often do we as churches let that happen, always being ready to speak of what we have found rather than allowing others to seek their own answers.  Nicodemus reminds us that we do not have to understand to find those answers, all we need to do is keep searching for the moment when faith will find us, “a faith which hears the inaudible, which sees the invisible, which believes the incredible and which receives the impossible”. The very approach Paul was advocating to the Ephesians to realise that it was not their own efforts or their own understanding that we find peace, but in the supreme love of God manifested in Jesus Christ, as long as we go on looking.  As we go through the gospel of John we see glimpses of the story of Nicodemus and his searching which in the final act becomes interwoven into God’s story.

In his book, ‘Falling Upward’ (1), Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and theologian, describes life as two parts.  The first part of life is building a place for ourself and the second is about learning to live easily within it. It is this second part that leads us closer and closer to God.  Lived like this life is about falling upward into God.  This could so easily apply to Nicodemus as through his searching  the Spirit lead him closer and closer to his eternal home.  The labyrinth of Nicodemus, perhaps.  The letter to the Ephesians points out very powerfully that life is different now, thanks to God, but we still have to learn to live in it.  The facts, the ways of human life have not changed but hope has.  We still will need to travel the journey of life, but now towards a different ending.

(1) Falling Upward, a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr [SPCK]

No Greater Love
by Brother Roger of Taize

Risen Christ you take us with our hearts just as they are.

Why do we go on thinking that we must wait for our hearts to change before we can go to you.  You will transfigure them, whatever they may be.

With our thorns, you will light a fire.  The open wound in us is the place through which your love streams through.  Within our hurts you bring a fruition, a communion with you.

Your voice comes to rend our night, and gateways of praise will open up within us.

O Lord help us to go on searching for those glimpses of your love,

                    Glimpses that will sustain the journey and bring us at last to your wonder.

Third Sunday of Lent

Readings: Exodus 20.1-17; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22

Jesus and the temple

Those of you who consider such matters will realise that the lectionary readings are in a three-year cycle and use the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as the primary source for the gospel readings with John being used more at specific seasons, such as Easter, Lent and Advent or at times to supplement the synoptic gospel or indeed to bring forward ideas not mentioned in the basic gospel of that year.  The reason for this is fairly easy to identify in that the synoptics follow a chronological pattern, admittedly with variations and differing emphasis to the events of this pattern, whilst John’s reflective style has variations unique to his gospel. Indeed, there are only six miracles recorded in John’s gospel, two of which are recorded in the synoptics, and John refers to them as signs not miracles. Miracles can be regarded as things which are easily recognised and identified by all whereas signs are based upon similar, but not so evident, events from which their true meaning emerges to those who reflect upon them.  Being generally a different set of ideas recorded in the various gospels has led to the charge of inconsistency from those wishing to challenge the Christian faith, whilst in effect they are probably all true but the specific writers have highlighted the specific ones which bring out the meaning they wish to communicate.  The first sign in John, and not recorded in the synoptics, is the wedding at Cana of Galilee, and indicates what John’s whole thesis is about.  It is changing water into wine, and refers to the way in Jesus, God is changing the water of humanity back into the wine of His kingdom.

These differences of approach don’t come without their difficulties and today’s gospel reading is no exception.  This cleansing of the temple is recorded in all four gospels and as such must have significance and meaning for all of them.  But that is where the similarity ends, indeed extending to the whole idea of Jesus in Jerusalem at all. The synoptics only record Jesus as visiting Jerusalem, and thus the temple, once (Luke introduces a further visit when Jesus is twelve years old).  John, on the other hand, has Jesus in Jerusalem at least seven times, three of which are at Passover meals on various occasions.  In addition, the focus for the synoptics is the ministry of Jesus in Galilee, whilst the focus for John is Jerusalem, with only a very limited number of his events relating to Galilee.  A source of confusion certainly, and a possible charge of inconsistency.  Yet they are probably both correct, just focussing their story on parts which were more familiar to each writer, and illustrated what they wanted to pass on.  Indeed, there are some who think that there were two groups of followers of Jesus, one based in Galilee whom we know much most about, and one based in or around Jerusalem of whom we know much less.  Regardless of it being a passing acquaintance to us, the closeness of Jesus to Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and the familiarity Jesus appears to have with Jerusalem and its surrounds, provide reasonably strong evidence of this idea. The idea of Jesus being familiar with Jerusalem is further enhanced by the event where he weeps over Jerusalem and vows to gather her children together (Matthew 23.37)

The account of the cleansing of the Temple is similarly quite difficult to place in time.  John has this taking place early on in Jesus’ ministry, whilst the synoptics have it at the end, as part of the finale of his challenge to the religious leaders.  Who is right?  In this instance probably the synoptics.  If this confrontation had taken place, as John suggests, at the beginning of his ministry Jesus would have been a marked man as far as the temple was concerned, and probably Jerusalem per se.  If that had been his opening challenge it would seem to be highly unlikely that the temple authorities would have tolerated him there on future occasions.

The most interesting matter for these four accounts, however, is their remarkable similarity in detail.  It is not just in the detail of what Jesus did, but what lay behind his anger.  It is Mark’s account which really brings it to light, in remarkable brevity. In chapter 11, verse 17 he records these words of Jesus, “My Temple will be called a house of prayer for the people of all nations”.  Those six words that I have put in italics were probably the source of Jesus’ anger.  To understand we need to know something of the Temple ground plan.  It was a series of courts around, and leading to the Holy of Holies.  Without going into too much detail there were several such outer courts including the Court of the Women, and the Court of the Gentiles.  This latter court indicates that the Temple had a place for all people who were seeking after truth, it was not limited to those who had superior knowledge or experience. There was a place for all in the Temple, with increasing knowledge being needed only as they got closer and closer to its heart.  The anger towards the traders and money changers was two-fold.  Firstly, it took place in the court of the Gentiles, and thus they had been excluded for this practice to take place.  Secondly, even poor Jewish people were being excluded because they could not pay the exorbitant price for the acceptable sacrifices, or indeed to change their money into currency which was acceptable to the authorities.  Here then is the heart of this passage, exclusion of people who wanted, for whatever reason, to be there.  Exclusivity fermented Jesus’ anger.

Over the centuries it has remained an area where the Christian Church has also had its difficulties. Perhaps because of the nature of its development as a universal faith,exclusivity has often not been far from its structure. Our most recent history shows attempts to rectify this, from the introduction of nave altars and font placements to all-age services, but it is still an issue facing our churches.  The single most important issue still facing them us is how to make them more inclusive. Indeed, it could be that unless the issue is solved in the near future many of our smaller churches will disappear.

Being inclusive one of the issues at stake in Jerusalem, it remains very much at the heart of present day survival. That is where the supporting readings come into the reckoning for today.  On one hand we have the clearly defined path to God as indicated by the Ten Commandments with the idea that if we stick rigidly to that approach we will be alright.  On the other hand, we have Paul advocating that people need come to God through their own situations and experiences of life.  Which is correct?  Well both probably, we must approach Him as the people that we are, not the people we try to make ourselves into.

I would end by saying that I have certainly not covered all the ideas that this gospel reading opens up.  The concluding remark of John’s gospel sums it up, “If everything were written down the whole world could not hold everything that is written”.  I hope my emphasis on the Temple and what it can still teach us will not exclude your own wider thoughts. Yet for me the development of a church for all is the heart of the future of the church.  Its ability to touch our whole community, regardless if they share our story or not, will be the significant factor. By so doing God’s story will become their story.

City of God, how broad and far
outstretch thy walls sublime!
Thy free and loyal people are.
of every age and clime. 

In vain the surge, angry shock,
in vain the drifting sands;
unharmed upon the eternal Rock
the eternal city stands.

Second Sunday of Lent

Readings: Genesis 17, 1-7 and 15-16; Romans 4, 13-25; Mark 8, 31-38 

One of the cartoon character, Charlie Brown sayings is, “Winning may not be everything but losing is nothing!” Something many of us have thought from time to time, and it sums up Peter’s response in our gospel reading today.  There is often a struggle to get to an understanding of the Sunday Lectionary readings, as some people found with last week’s reading.  This week’s gospel reading is no different and to get a grip on it we probably need to refer to a few paragraphs before if we are to understand today’s reading.

From verse 27 Jesus has been discussing with the disciples who the people think he is.  They respond with ideas from John the Baptist to Elijah and the prophets, but Jesus wants to know more.  But you, he asks, “Who do you say that I am?”  What is your understanding of what I am doing, what is your understanding of what I will be doing, is really the question he is asking.  It is Peter who steps forward with an answer, “You are the Lord’s Anointed one, the Messiah”.  In a blink, no doubt, he probably regretted that response.  Jesus was not content to leave it there, and he proceeded to tell them of the way things were going to pan out which certainly didn’t help Peter at all.  In fact it was far from what Peter, or any of the disciples, could understand about Jesus or the Messiah in general, it totally confounded them. 

To begin to understand we must first get some idea of what the Messiah meant to the Jewish people.  This cannot simply be done from the Bible alone, for the Jewish ideas began long before any written record could be made, a faith steeped in a powerful oral tradition.  Even when their civilisation had reached a stage where records could be written they weren’t, because it was deemed unlawful to record them.  It was much later before such written records could be kept and the Mishnah, written in the 3rd century B.C., is the full comprehensive record, “The Oral Torah” as it is sometimes referred to.  There are a few references to the ideas in the Book of Isaiah and that of Jeremiah, with others in the Apocrypha, but it is only the Mishnah where that true picture of the Jewish Messiah emerges.

It emerges as Israel begins to move into a time when its memories of being a free state had almost disappeared. Over numerous centuries they have been over-run by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and finally the Romans.  Their memory and their story were fast disappearing which led to a change of heart regarding the writing down of such memories.  It was here the Jewish ideal of the Messiah emerged as a vengeful concept returning Israel to what they pictured as their rightful place, far from anything like the concept of the Messiah that we hold now.  When Peter referred to Jesus as the Messiah he would have been influenced by much of  that thought as someone to return Israel to its rightful place  whatever the cost. It was an aggressive, nationalistic, vengeful, violent even, concept which perpetrated the Jewish thinking of the time.  In the other three gospels, we see this idea returning in the person of Barabbas, a person who displayed all these characteristics, and whose release the crowd clamoured for.

The continued times of subservience had limited any idea of the real Messiah beyond this thinking, it was natural that someone was needed who would break their continued subjection. Far indeed from where Jesus himself was,  I guess even Peter’s response of the Messiah made Jesus angry, so angry that he spelt out in very graphic detail of what his Messiahship would mean.  Here was the first real human/divine conflict for Jesus, and one that the disciples just could not understand, ideas which were both incredible and incomprehensible.

We can perhaps understand something of the dismay facing the disciples which gave rise to such an anger in Peter that he even chose to rebuke Jesus.  But what of Jesus’ response to Peter’s anger?  We certainly aren’t expecting it, so how can it be explained.

 Firstly, it is worth noting that Mark’s writing can be very critical of the disciples,” they were close enough to see everything and yet understood nothing” often being the source of his criticism.  Mark was never reticent when the disciples were found wanting, and here was a particularly bold example.  Why, after all the time you have followed him do you not see what Jesus is all about, he seems to be asking.  Have you seen all those things he has done, and you still want to control what he is and does to suit your own needs?  Certainly, the anger was partly used by Mark to make his point. Mark choses to ignore the obvious and very vulnerable feelings of the disciples at this time. so soon after the beheading of John the Baptist.

The anger of Jesus, towards Peter in particular, goes much further.  This is a difficult time for Jesus also.  Whether as a result of the death of the Baptist or not, Jesus has just made the decision to turn his eyes towards his challenge to the religious hierarchy and the ultimate cost there will be.  As we discussed last week the vulnerable side of Jesus came to the fore and here the exchange led to anger. This anger probably went much deeper as he saw in their response an attempt to control God, just indeed as the Jewish hierarchy were doing, and against which his final battle would be. Yet despite this anger something good came out of it, for as we see Jesus speaking to the crowd following him, by emphasising their part in this new covenant which God was making with them.  In all covenants it is easy to assume the effort coming solely from God and mostly it does, but here we see the part we have to play by genuinely following where he leads.  The Old Testament reading this week is about the covenant Abraham had with God, again looking one sided until we see how that covenant depended on Abraham’s new loyalty and faith, his trust and obedience.  The covenants with Noah and Moses were similar. Today’s New Testament reading follows this up with Paul explaining that human commitment to the covenant in his letter to the Romans.

Out of this difficult moment comes a powerful universal message, our part in the covenant. The promise God gives us in Jesus Christ is enhanced or reduced by the measure our loyalty and our faith towards Him.  Fullness can only come when we let go of ourselves, when we refrain from using God for what we want of him or where we want him to go.  It is simply about “letting go and letting God”, or as the hymn says, “Trust and obey, there is no other way…”. That is the faith which leads to the deep peace that we seek.

The Gift of a Cross
by Pat Marsh (published by Inspire)

Lord, I simply desire
that my life should reflect your love,
my feet
walk in your footprints
and my lips
speak your praise.
I only desire
that my strength
should come from the cross
and above all else
that my will
should be in alignment
with your will   

First Sunday of Lent

21 February 2021

Readings: Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15

We return to the baptism of Jesus by John.  Two things happen which are significant.  Firstly, we see the affirmation of God and signifies the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, followed by (according to Mark) Jesus being led out to the wilderness.  During our last week’s zoom Sunday Worship we thought about the word love, and in particular what love is, and for most of us it was easier to recognise than define.  For my part it seems there are two quite distinct aspects, one which encourages and one which challenges, and these are held together in a spirit of affirmation.  We see these two diverse aspects held closely together in our gospel reading today.

A first reaction may well be to see these two aspects as quite distinct and of quite different origin, the one coming from God and the other from Satan.  However, if we look closely it isn’t the origin that is important but is more about seeing God in both.  The difficulty encountered is in the understanding of the concept of Satan or Devil.

In our present time we have come to understand Satan as the enemy or adversary of God, and this colours our understanding of what is going on in this initial part of Mark’s gospel.  In the time that it was written, and throughout Jewish history, Satan was not seen in that wider, universal sense but more as an individual adversary within each one.  As an example we see Solomon finding peace because he has overcome his own adversary (1 Kings 5.4) and the reading of the Old Testament where we see this understanding emerging time and again.  Indeed, it is the heart of the Book of Job, which is an account of Job coming to an understanding of his own adversary and eventually emerging from it. Even his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are part of his inner turmoil.  This view was certainly prevalent at the time of Jesus and the writing of the gospels, since Jesus in his healings is seen as attacking the inner adversaries of each individual in a unique and individualistic way.  Being able to see this as a struggle withing the individual, rather than a cosmic battle between good and evil, enables us to begin to consider God’s presence and love within it. Significantly the action of Judas Iscariot can be more easily understood in this way.  A Jewish Zealot very much opposed to the taking of Elijah’s cup as abhorrent, this emerged as the ultimate breaking point in his relationship with Jesus. In a small way these “inner demons” are reflected in our own actions with our own children as they grow up, or with someone for whom we have love.  We might desperately wish to protect them from all the struggles and difficulties which will impinge upon them, but in the end all that we can really do is to support them through it.

This original understanding of devil or Satan makes it somewhat easier to get a handle on the events following the baptism of Jesus. Following this magnificent moment when God refers to Jesus as his son, we immediately then see Jesus in the wilderness.  But it was the manner of Jesus getting there which seems to be more incongruous with our present idea of a universal devil. The varying Bible translations describe this in various ways, from the more recent translations of being led into the desert, to the older and more accurate translation from the original Greek of being driven or thrust into it.  It is hard to see the instigator being God who has just proclaimed or affirmed Jesus, but neither is Jesus likely to be led or seduced by the devil at this life-changing moment.  Much more likely is the concept of the inner struggles and uncertainties within each one of us, and probably within Jesus himself as he is overwhelmed by the task that faces him.

Jesus needed seclusion to sort it out in his own mind, the wilderness was the only place he could find that seclusion after such a dramatic moment. We only have to move on two chapters in Mark’s gospel  to realise that those close to Jesus realised this inner turmoil going on. In Mark 3.31-35 we read of his mother and his brothers coming to try to take him away from this way of life. Sadly, we see this episode being obscured by Jesus’ question of who are his mother and his brothers, which we will no doubt come to in due time.  Sufficient at this time is to try to understand what Jesus is actually going through, now we see the glory but at the time he must have been very conscious of the personal cost of it all.  Would he be able to bear it, would certainly have been his human consideration as he contemplated it.

Unlike the other gospels which embellish the situation by the actual temptations that Jesus faced, Mark is content to simply describe the harshness of the place and the threats that it, and the ultimate decision, place upon him. Mark confines himself to the human Jesus.  The wild animals, the threats awaiting him on every side, are very evident and Mark uses them to define the hostility of the situation in which Jesus finds himself. (see footnote)

What we see emerging is  the increasing realisation of Jesus that he will not face this on his own.  Mark is no doubt mindful of the story of when Elisha and his servant are under siege from their enemies, and Elisha enables the young servant to see that they are not alone but surrounded by the ‘the angel army’ of God, (2 Kings 6).  Jesus emerges from the wilderness and the struggle stronger and ready to face the task ahead of him.  It is an account which is mirrored in our own lives.  Many of us face desperate setbacks and daunting ways forward where it is so much easier to want to hand it over to God to sort it all out for us, or to hide behind the great hope that God will put it all right in the end.  He will, but perhaps it would have been better to play our own part in it, realising that we are never on our own but recognising God is always in the struggle with us – not least in the present world worries and situations, let alone in our individual ones.

Mark gives us a picture of the human Jesus and he doesn’t clutter it with theology or other agenda.  He simply tells us the story of Jesus and from it we can gain so many messages and inspirations for our own lives.  Jesus knew it too, and tried so hard to ensure that the miraculous didn’t get in the way.  The trouble is, then and now, the desire for the easy and the miraculous is so great that we fail to see that miracle exists in every step of creation’s journey, in every aspect of our life.

Throughout the Old Testament it is recognised that our relationship with God has broken down and a sign of its restoration is that creation can live in harmony.  That search for creational harmony emerges in several places starting with Noah and finding places in the words of the Prophets, especially in the words of “the lion will lie down with the lamb”.  Others may well interpret this account of the ‘temptation’ in the light of this suggesting this has already begun in the wilderness where Jesus was able to do just that.

Divine dynamic
from Whispers of Love by Pat Marsh 

Gracious Lord,
when you called me to follow
I little thought
that it would be this painful,
lonely, hard.
Would I have restrained my “yes”
had I but known
where it would lead?
Could I have withheld
acceptance to your call?
I know
That I could not.
No ordinary invitation that,
when you came knocking,
in my dreams,
but rather some divine dynamic
calling into being
the beginnings of my destiny,
Could I have withheld my “yes”?
I know that I could not.             


O Lord, in Jesus you took on our humanity,
He was the fullness of your love for us.
The greatest love that there could be,
yet we set it aside so easily
seduced by the glimpses of his divinity.
Help us to see the humanity of Jesus,
the reality of our lives in his.
Help us to see the struggles that he had,
and the joys, in following you.
A pattern for humanity, a pattern for me.
Help me to know his feelings,
and realise that they are my own.
As I try to hide from his struggles,
help me to realise that it is there
He has set a pattern for my journey home.

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