Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Ash Wednesday

This is the transcript of my sermon for Ash Wednesday on February 26, 2020.

Ash Wednesday


Joel 2:1-2,12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6.10 
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.’

These are the words that accompany the ‘imposition of ashes’ that takes place in churches on Ash Wednesday.  They are words that this year very few people in Hong Kong will hear.  This is, of course, because churches, unlike shops and supermarkets, are, at the moment, closed to the public.  However, it has to be said, that even had we been allowed to open today, our churches would not have exactly been full.

This is in contrast to how Lent was approached and observed in the past.  In the past, yesterday Shrove Tuesday, all the sweet and delicious food in our store cupboards would have been eaten.  We would have gone to church to be ‘shriven’, that is, to confess our sins and receive absolution from a priest in order to get ourselves ready for Lent.  Giving something up in Lent would not have been a token ‘giving up’, but a several week abstaining from meat and much else.

Lent in the past, in other words, was taken very seriously.  It was not simply about preparing for Easter, but about a specific way of preparing for Easter.  It was a time for self-examination and reflection on our mortality and spiritual need, designed to get us ready for the message we will celebrate at Easter.  Ash Wednesday, the day beginning Lent, is still, in the Anglican Church, a Principal Holy day, one that Christians are expected to take seriously.

So why don’t we?

Well doubtless the reasons are many, but certainly part of the reason is that we don’t want to hear how utterly weak and wretched we are.  You might have thought that the fact that whole cities are being brought to a standstill by a virus might have led us to think about our weakness and vulnerability, even if nothing else did, but human pride and arrogance being what they are, we have developed a natural immunity to such a message.

The truth is we have embraced instead the message of popular culture that tells us we are all wonderful really.  ‘There is nothing we can’t do, if we but believe in ourselves.’  ‘Our only limitation is our imagination.’  This would just be mildly amusing were it not for the fact that this is the message that children are being taught in schools and the philosophy they are being raised and encouraged to base their whole lives on.

No wonder then that they get such a shock when they find out by bitter experience just how false it is.  Of course, the world holds up as examples of its message those who have followed their dreams and have succeeded.  And it emphatically insists that we can be like them if we have the same faith in ourselves.  This isn’t just a lie; it is a cruel lie.  No wonder then that suicide, mental illness, depression, despair, and disillusionment are so common among even the youngest members of our society.

Instead of embracing this philosophy of human wonderfulness as have, to our shame, many Christians and churches, we as Christians should be telling people how we are the exact opposite of wonderfulness.  We should do this not because we enjoy wallowing in sin and humiliation in a kind of spiritual sado-masochism, as the world likes to suggest we do, but, quite simply, because it is the truth.

We really aren’t wonderful.  We can’t do anything we want if we just put our minds to it.  And believing in ourselves is more likely to lead to disappointment and failure than it is to success.

And we are all going to die.

And that is the one indisputable fact that none can escape, no matter how much we may try to ignore or forget it.  We try to ignore or forget it because it undermines everything we are being taught about how wonderful we are.

I stand before you as a dying man.

Just as you are a dying man or woman.  The issue is not whether we will die, only when.  The fact of our mortality should draw us up short.  It should make us think.  And it should lead us to God.

If we stop at our sin and mortality, then we will end our lives in despair.  But the good news that we will celebrate at Easter is that God has taken our sin, weakness, and wretchedness on himself.  He has even allowed himself to become subject to death itself that we may have life.  He did this not because of how wonderful we are, but because of how wonderful he is.

Lent, then, is not simply about reflecting on how terrible our sin and failure is.  It is seeing in the light of our sin and failure how amazing is what God has done for us.

It is also about seeing our sin and failure in the light of what God has done for us.  So serious is our sin and failure that Christ had to die for it.  His body and blood are at the centre of our worship as a permanent reminder to us of this seriousness.  Saint Paul wrote:

‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ (1 Corinthians 11:26)

Our celebration of the Eucharist tells us both the bad news about ourselves and the good news of what Christ has done for us.

So today, as we begin Lent, we remember that we are ‘dust and to dust we shall return’.  And we do not come to this our Lord’s table trusting in ourselves and in own righteousness.  We come knowing that ‘we have no power of ourselves to save ourselves’, trusting only in his mercy.

We eat his body and drink his blood because we know that only they can save us.

We are not wonderful, but we do worship a wonderful Saviour.

As we reflect in Lent on our wretchedness and worthlessness, may God grant us a vision of the Lamb of God who alone is worthy and who saves those who, no matter how unworthy they may be, turn to him.

‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’


Sunday, February 23, 2020

Sunday next before Lent

This is the transcript of my sermon for February 23, 2020.

The Sunday next before Lent:


Exodus 24:12-end
2 Peter 1:16-end
Matthew 17:1-9

Our Gospel reading today is Saint Matthew’s account of the transfiguration.  This was when our Lord took three of his closest disciples: Peter, James, and John and went up a mountain.  This is reminiscent of what Moses had done to receive the ten commandments from God.  Jesus is transfigured, that is, transformed, before them and becomes ‘dazzlingly’ white.  Saint Peter, reflecting on this after Jesus had been raised from the dead and had ascended to his father, wrote in our second reading:
‘We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.’ (2 Peter 1:16)

If we are to understand the significance of this for us today, we need to see the context of Jesus’ transfiguration in the Gospels.  Just before the transfiguration, at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus famously asked his disciples who people said that he was.  They reported that people thought he was one of the prophets.  ‘But who do you say that I am,’ Jesus asked them.  Peter replied, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God’.  Jesus told him that this insight had been given to him by God himself.

In what follows, however, Peter shows that he is not quite there yet.  When Jesus goes on to explain how being the Messiah means that he must suffer and die, Peter will have none of it, earning from Jesus the well-known reprimand, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’  Jesus continues to explain that not only must he suffer and die, but his disciples must expect the same.  What is more, dying to self is not to be a one-off event, it must be something that characterizes their daily lives.

Only those who lose their lives will save them, and any who seek to save their lives will lose them, Jesus warns.  He concludes:

‘For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?’ (Matthew 16:26)

Six days later, the transfiguration takes place.

Jesus is asking a lot of his followers.  He is asking that in this life they forget about themselves and what they want and concentrate instead on serving him.  We, as his followers today, are to turn our back on this world and its attitudes, values, and priorities and accept suffering as a consequence, looking to the future and not to the present.  If we are to do this, we need to know that it is worth it and that the One who asks this commitment of us is worth it and can deliver on his promises.  Otherwise, we are simply deluding ourselves.

Even if Jesus is the Messiah, why should we have to make such great sacrifices for him?  Why, indeed, should we take any notice of him?

After all, many would be leaders make promises before they come to power.  Politicians, for example, promise much before they are elected.  ‘Support me and I will give you this and that,’ they tell us to secure our allegiance to them and to their cause.  Many make such promises cynically with no intention of keeping them.  Others do so sincerely enough, but, once they gain power, it turns out that they are not in a position to deliver on what they have promised.  How do we know that Jesus the Messiah is able to keep his promises?

It is at this point that God steps in.  As Jesus and his three disciples are alone at the top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured before them.  They see him now not simply as a prophet and teacher, or even as the hoped for Messiah.  He is all this, but more, much more.  Jesus is, the Voice from heaven tells them, God’s Beloved Son.  Not a son in the sense that special people in the past were God’s son, but in a far deeper sense.

This had been what the Voice had said at Jesus’ baptism before Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tested - as we shall be thinking about on Wednesday as we begin Lent.

Now, however, the Voice from heaven adds a command: LISTEN TO HIM!  Jesus is God’s very own Son sent by him and we are to listen to him.  Not listen to him and then get on with our lives as if he hasn’t spoken but listen to him and do as exactly as he says knowing that our very lives depend on it.

There are three things, in particular, for us to take away from this today.

1. We too need to see Jesus for who he really is

Many, including sadly, Christians, are happy to see Jesus as a prophet or a religious teacher, even the greatest religious teacher, but no more.  We are happy with a fully human Jesus, but we don’t want a fully divine Jesus.  We have gone in for a kind of ‘reverse transfiguration’ in which the divine Jesus of the Church’s faith has been transfigured into something more palatable to us.

We are comfortable with the idea of Jesus the teacher who offers us good advice, but Jesus as God’s Son, who must be listened to and obeyed, is not something we are quite so keen on.

We are to follow Jesus not because we like what he says, nor for what he can do for us, we are to follow him because he is who he is.  For if he is who he claimed to be, then we would be mad not to follow him.

2. We need to be clear what he asks of us

Even though they had been given this amazing experience, Jesus’ disciples still didn’t get it, and it was only later that they realized the significance of what they had experienced and of what Jesus had taught them.  They had grasped that Jesus was special.  They now also had some insight into just how special, but they still could not accept what this meant for them in this life.

It was not long after the transfiguration that the disciples argued with one another over who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God.  To their credit, they believed now that the Kingdom of God was coming and Jesus was to be the One who would bring it, but they still thought of it in terms of what was in it for them.  Jesus will not, however, allow them to think like this.  The Kingdom will bring many benefits to those who enter it, but the benefits are of an entirely different kind to those offered to us in this world and to receive them we need to renounce all that this world values and holds so dear.

Not for Jesus’ followers wealth, power, and greatness, but instead, in this life, suffering, sacrifice, and service.  And this is something that as Jesus’ followers we have to take seriously, so seriously that we must deal ruthlessly with anything that gets in the way of it.  Jesus tells his disciples bluntly:

‘If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.’ (Matthew 18:8-9)

3. We are, then, to do what he tells us to do

‘Listen to him’, said the Voice from heaven.

For if Jesus is who the Voice from heaven says he is, then listening to and obeying him is not just good advice, it is an instruction from God himself that we ignore at our peril.  Knowing who Jesus really is and what it is he requires of us, it is now left to us to just do it.

It will, however, not be easy, and it will mean going against all the advice that we receive from the teachers of this world.  It will mean losing ourselves instead of finding ourselves; it will mean self-denial rather than self-fulfilment; it will mean renouncing material wealth and ambition and acquiring instead ‘treasure in heaven’.  It will mean seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness rather than pursuing pleasure and success.

Jesus wants us to give our lives to him.  And as the saints and martyrs found, this may literally cost us our lives in this world.  For most of us, however, it won’t mean having physically to die for our faith, but it will mean taking our faith and commitment to Jesus seriously and that will involve taking risks.

Following Jesus will be tough and at times lonely.  In the Sermon on the Mount, which we have been reading for the past few Sundays, Jesus says:

‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ (Matthew 7:13-14)

For Saint John, looking back in his Gospel on the ministry of Jesus, the transfiguration was not the first or only time Jesus revealed his true glory.  Jesus did so with his first miracle when he turned water into wine.  On that occasion, the Blessed Virgin Mary said to the servants, ‘Whatever he tells you to do, do it.  As we prepare to enter Lent, she would say it to us.

Today, we too hear the Voice from heaven announce:

‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’

‘Whatever he tells you to do, do it.’


Friday, February 21, 2020

The Second Sunday before Lent, 2020

The COVID-19 virus outbreak has led the Bishops of the Anglican Church here in Hong Kong to cancel all church services. To try to continue to offer spiritual and pastoral support to the congregation, we are recording a service together with a sermon and uploading it on YouTube.

This, then, is the transcript of a short sermon for February 16, 2020.

The Second Sunday before Lent:

Friday, as I am sure you know, was Saint Valentine’s Day. Not much is known about Saint Valentine. What is known is that he was probably a church leader in Rome in the third century. This was a time when the Church often had to face opposition and persecution, and Saint Valentine himself was murdered for his faith in Christ and became one of the martyrs of the Church. Quite how he became so closely associated with ‘romantic love’ is a bit of a mystery!

The Church throughout her history has often had to go through some testing times. It has been blessed by God with people like Saint Valentine who have shown faith and provided a witness to Christ in dark times.

In the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, the martyrs are portrayed as being in heaven under the protection of God. St John, the writer of Revelation, writes that a loud voice in heaven says of those who have died for their faith that they have conquered and overcome the enemy that is against them:

‘by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.’ (Revelation 12:11)

This faith, shown by the saints, which results in them putting their commitment to God above even their own life and safety is not only something that is only required of the saints and martyrs, the heroes of the faith. 

In our reading this morning from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks to his disciples about their life in this world. He says to them:

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?’ (Matthew 6:25)

It is not, Jesus tells them that these things are unimportant. Their Father knows that they need them, Jesus says. It is rather that their outlook and priorities are to be very different from those around them who do not share their faith in God. Instead, they are to strive, to work hard, to put all their energy and concern into seeking the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and leave all the other things they need to God.

Saint Paul writes in the second reading today:

‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.’ (Romans 8:18)

Never listen to anyone who tells you that suffering doesn’t matter who has never suffered greatly themselves. It is very easy to talk about suffering without ever having really experienced it. Saint Paul had experienced it. He not only had experienced the suffering that is common to us all: loneliness, serious illness, bereavement and the like; he had been imprisoned and tortured for his faith in Christ. He had been beaten, the victim of hate and abuse, and had to endure much physical hardship - all because of his faith.

Saint Paul didn’t see this as either particularly heroic or abnormal. He saw it as just doing what God wanted him to do. He knew that God had better things in store for him in the future and that hope in Christ enabled him to persevere and face danger and difficulty.

Jesus told his disciples:

‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ (Matthew 10:28)

Clearly, in the present situation, we are all concerned about physical health and the physical well-being of those we love and care for. Much has changed over this past year in Hong Kong, but for Christians in a very real sense nothing has changed. Our over-riding concern and priority is, or should be, to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.

As the earthly life and ministry of our Lord vividly demonstrates, God is passionately concerned about our physical health and well-being. Disease, sickness, and even death itself, are all enemies belonging to the Devil himself. Even though we are faced with such powerful enemies, if we follow the example of Saint Valentine and the saints, then we too like them will overcome ‘by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony’.

So then, at this difficult time, may we look not to the present, but to the future and seek in our lives and in all we do to put the Kingdom of God first.