Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

This is the transcription of my sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent on March 29, 2020.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent


Ezekiel 37:1-14
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

Our Gospel reading is a very well-known and much loved one that has given hope to many.  It contains the famous verse used at funerals:

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die?’ (John 11:25-26)

The reading does, however, raise a number of questions that we need to try to answer.

1. Why the delay?

In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus has been in Jerusalem for the Feast of Dedication and tensions have been rising.  The authorities there are now trying to arrest Jesus, and so he leaves Jerusalem for the relative safety of a place some distance away beyond the River Jordan where John the Baptist had been baptizing and where his own ministry began.

It is here that a message reaches him that his friend Lazarus, who lived with two other friends, Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, is very ill.  Lazarus, Martha, and Mary live just outside of Jerusalem in a village called Bethany.  Going back there will mean, in all likelihood, that Jesus will be arrested and face death.  A fact that does not escape the notice of one of his disciples, Thomas.  (This is the Thomas who is often known as ‘Doubting Thomas’.  We will come back to Thomas after Easter.) 

Whatever doubts he may or may not have had after Easter, here Thomas seems to be quite certain of what going to Jerusalem means.  When Jesus says they are going to Bethany to help their friend, Thomas says to his fellow disciples:

‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ (John 11:16)

Quite what tone there was in his voice, whether one of bravery and determination or resignation and defeat, we are not told.  Either way, this is a dangerous move on Jesus’ part and Thomas knows it.

This does not explain one strange feature of Jesus’ response, however.  When Jesus hears of his friend’s illness, he quite deliberately delays going by two days.  What is more the message has been sent by the sisters, who obviously are desperate for Jesus to come and help his friend, their brother.  Even more strangely, the delay is not because Jesus is reluctant or afraid to go, but because he wants to make sure that Lazarus is well and truly dead when he gets there.

We often talk of the disciples as if they were both stupid and cowards.  This is somewhat unfair.  As Jesus himself acknowledges, they had left everything to follow him, and like Thomas seemed ready to die for him.  It is certainly true that they don’t seem always to have understood what Jesus said to them, but then Jesus wasn’t always very easy to understand.

Here, for example, Jesus tells them that he is glad that he was not there when their friend became sick; he talks mysteriously about Lazarus ‘falling asleep’ and has to explain that he means Lazarus is dead; and then he delays doing anything about it, despite having told them:

‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ (John 11:4)

And he says this when it is apparent that it already has lead to death as Jesus himself tells them.

So, what’s going on?  Why does Jesus delay?  Why doesn’t he respond to the sisters’ appeal to him and rush to help.

The problem is that we like the disciples judge everything by what seems good and right to us and we try to get God to do the same.  Like the disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry, we simply assume that if something is in our own best interest, then this must be what God wants too.  If something causes us pain or problems and we want it to go away, then it is inconceivable to us that God wouldn’t want it to go away too.  And if God doesn’t immediately respond by making it go away, we get confused and troubled. 

We then start to question God.

As some of those who go to see the sisters after their brother’s death are to comment:

‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ (John 11:37)

So, before we try to remove the ‘speck’ out of Jesus’ disciples’ eyes, we need to address the ‘beam’ in our own.

As Jesus’ followers today we are called to a different world view and perspective from those around us.  One in which we reorder our priorities and our way of looking both at events in the world around us and those in our own lives too.  What we are called to look and work for is not what makes us happy and comfortable, but what brings glory to God, and that will always involve the ‘Son of God being glorified’.

What will glorify God here is not Lazarus being healed, but him dying.

And so, when he is sure that Lazarus is dead, Jesus sets out for Bethany taking his disciples with him.  This is his final journey to Jerusalem.  The events of Holy Week are now getting very close.

When they arrive, they find that Lazarus has been dead for four days.  This is significant.  Jews at the time believed that a person could only be said to be truly dead after they had been dead for four days.  In other words, there is no doubt about it.  Hearing Jesus is coming, one of the sisters, Martha, comes out to meet him.

I always feel sorry for Martha.  We know of Martha and her sister, Mary, from Luke’s Gospel.  St Luke tells us how on one occasion, when Jesus and his disciples were visiting them, Martha was busy getting a meal ready for everyone while Mary sat at Jesus feet listening to him.  On this occasion, Martha complained to Jesus about her sister, earning a rebuke from Jesus for being too busy.  Mary, Jesus told Martha, was doing the right thing.

What Martha says to Jesus when she comes out to meet him is interesting:

‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’’ (John 11:21-22)

Compare this with what Mary says when Martha tells her that Jesus is calling for her:

‘When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (John 11:32)

There can be no doubt of both of the women’s love for Jesus.  Both also imply that Jesus is to blame for not having done more to help.  If he had been there, Lazarus, their brother, would not have died.  There is, however, a difference in their response.  For Mary that’s the end of it.  Jesus hadn’t been there for them and now their brother is dead.  Perhaps that’s why Mary didn’t go out to meet him and why Jesus had to call for her.  She’s upset and disappointed with him.  It’s not that she doesn’t believe in his power and ability to heal.  She does and that’s the problem, why hadn’t been there to heal her brother while there was still time?

‘If you had of been there for us, my brother would not have died.  But you weren’t.  Were you Jesus?’

Martha had already said that, but she had also said something else: ‘Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.’  The Martha who was too busy to listen to Jesus previously has taken his words to her then to heart, and she is ready to listen to him now.  And so, it is thanks to Martha that Jesus says the words that have brought hope and comfort to millions. 

Jesus tells her that her brother will rise again.  Martha replies that she knows he will rise again as part of the resurrection on the Last Day.  The trouble being, of course, that that is then, and this is now.  Martha wants her brother with her now not on the Last Day.

But she is still listening to Jesus and he says those amazing words to her:

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’ (John 11:25-26)

Life is not about events either now or in the future.  Life is Jesus.  And for those who believe in Jesus, nothing, not even death, can take that life from them.  However, when we quote these fantastic words of Jesus, we leave out a vital bit of what he says.  Jesus immediately asks her:

Do you believe this? (John 11:26)

The words of Jesus about life and death are comforting, and they are words full of hope, but, Jesus asks Martha, ‘Do you believe this?’

Do we?

Jesus doesn’t say, ‘I am the resurrection and the life and even though someone dies yet will they live,’ he says that whoever believes in him will never die.

So again, the question, ‘Do we believe this?’

The question is not one about life and death in the abstract.  It is quite literally a question of life and death: our life and death.  The life and death of each one of us.  On the answer we give to this question depends our own life and death.

Martha answers as Jesus must have known and hoped she would answer:

‘She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (John 11:27)


Now all that’s left is for Jesus to show that he knew what he was doing all along and raise Lazarus from the dead.  Then the sisters will be happy; Jesus will be forgiven; and, Lazarus will get to live to die another day; and in the meantime, they will all live happily ever after.

But that’s not quite how the story turns out.  I am not talking now about what happens to Jesus in Jerusalem after Lazarus is raised from the dead, that’s another story entirely.  No, I am referring to what happens here before Lazarus is raised from the dead.

After Mary has expressed her feelings and recriminations to Jesus and seeing how upset everyone is, what does Jesus do?  Does he say, ‘Surprise!  And raise Lazarus from the dead?’  Does he tell them just to have patience and to trust him?
No, he weeps.

So instead, it is us who are surprised.  Why would Jesus weep?  He knows what he is going to do, and do in just a few minutes.  While Jesus might be sad to see them so upset, that will soon change when they see their brother alive again.  But no, even though Jesus knows what is about to happen, Jesus weeps.

2. Why does Jesus weep?

This isn’t about ‘weeping with those who weep’, as St Paul puts it.  Jesus isn’t simply weeping out of solidarity and sympathy, although he does do that too.  He is weeping at the terrible awfulness of death and the enormity of what he himself is about to experience.

When it comes to death and what we believe as Christians, we have adopted an approach to death that, in theory at least, sees death as ‘nothing at all’.  Surely Jesus has conquered death?  Isn’t that the whole point of Easter?  Yes, we tell ourselves, Jesus had to suffer and die and that must have been terrible for him at the time, but God raised him from the dead.  He conquered it and now he lives and reigns forever.  We might find death unpleasant, but now, thanks to Jesus, we have nothing to fear.  Death is nothing at all.

But death is something at all.  How quickly we forget that it is a something that the Son of God himself both feared and had to experience.  Death is the something, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, that keeps us in slavery to fear.  Something that is so powerful and deadly that it took a creative act of God to do something about.  And even then, it was not destroyed just defeated.  St Paul tells us that it is still an enemy waiting its final destruction.  So powerful is death that it will be the last enemy to be destroyed.

Death laughs at our easy optimism and has no trouble in destroying it.  All it takes is a death of someone we love or for us to be confronted with our own death for us to suddenly realize that death is something after all.  And Jesus knows this.  He knows that whatever he does Lazarus will die again.  He will die.  You and I will die.  And we will all die until that time when God will finally destroy death once and for all.

And so, Jesus weeps, and so should we.  St Augustine said:

‘Why did Jesus weep except to teach us to weep?’

Faced with the evil that is death, we should cry our hearts out.  Cry out of compassion for those who have suffered loss and bereavement and cry out of guilt because it is our sin, our rejection of God, and our love of darkness rather than light, that has made death the power and enemy it is.

3. What sign then does Jesus give?

Many church-goers find this hard to understand.  ‘After all, didn’t Jesus say he is the resurrection and the life and that whoever believes in him will never die?  Indeed, he did, but we will only appreciate how mind-blowingly incredible this is when we realize how truly terrible death is.  So terrible that it is only Jesus who can give us hope.  And the hope he gives us is not simply his resurrection on Easter Day. 

We also have hope because although we must experience the darkness and awful horror of death, he is indeed the resurrection and the life.  Even though they die, says Jesus, and die we shall, yet shall they live.  Live because he is the resurrection as well as the life.  The same God who raised Jesus from the dead ‘will give life to our mortal bodies through the same Spirit that dwells in us’, as St Paul writes in our second reading.

But the Spirit must dwell in us, and he will only dwell in us if, as Jesus says to Martha, we believe in him.

So, we come back to the question Jesus asked Martha:

‘Do you believe this?’

For those who believe in Jesus, that is, for those who trust in Jesus and do whatever he tells them to do, there is the promise that Jesus is both the ‘resurrection and the life’.

The raising of Lazarus, temporary though it was, is a sign of the greater resurrection yet to come.  A resurrection when God will wipe every tear from our eyes.  When death will be no more; and when all mourning and crying and pain too will be no more (Revelation 21:4).

Until then, like Jesus this morning, we weep at the grave of our loved ones who die, but we weep as those who although they know the power of death, know that the power of our God is greater.  And so, while we weep, we have hope and rejoice in him who was dead but is alive and who has the keys to both death and hell.

Do you believe this?

May we answer with St Martha:

‘Yes, Lord, I believe.’

And believing, may we make it our goal whether in our life or death that the ‘Son of God may be glorified through it.’


Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary

This is the transcript of a short sermon I gave for the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary on March 25, 2020.

The Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary


Isaiah 7:10-14
Hebrews 10:4-10
Luke 1:26-38

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  This is the festival in the Church’s calendar when we remember the Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary and his announcement to her that she would give birth to God’s Son, the Messiah. 

There are now just nine months to Christmas! 

Last Sunday was Mothering Sunday.  As I said in our service for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Mothering Sunday is different to Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day in Hong Kong this year is on Sunday, May 10. 

On Mothering Sunday, we think both of our earthly mothers and our mother Church.  In other words, of both those who mother us physically and spiritually.  Today reminds us that our Lord himself was born of an earthly mother and for many years of his life had an earthly mother to look after and care for him. 

For many that is where the Blessed Virgin Mary’s role begins and ends.  She gave birth and nurtured him, and then our Lord took over. Mary ceased to have any role after that.  For others, the Blessed Virgin Mary also serves a role model of faith, like other role models in Scripture.  This, at least, is an improvement on seeing her only in her role as mother to our Lord. 

This is not to suggest that that role was unimportant! 

At the present time, we are seeing just how important mothers are not only in providing physically for a child’s needs, but also in supporting them emotionally and spiritually during what is the worst health crisis we have lived through.  It is mothers, too, who are bearing the main burden in looking after their children’s education while schools are closed. 

One of my favourite painters is Henry Ossawa Tanner. 

He painted several paintings of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  One I particularly like is one of our Lady teaching Jesus.  Mary’s role in our Lord’s life was a significant one not only in giving birth, but also in raising and teaching him, and today is a good opportunity for us to remember and give thanks for it.

Another of Tanner’s paintings, which I have a copy of in my study, is of the event we are particularly thinking of today.   It depicts the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Gabriel is depicted simply using a ray of light.  Mary is sitting hands clasped listening intently.  She is young, but intelligent and aware. 

I like this painting especially because so many of the paintings and depictions of Mary make her appear so fragile and weak.  I realize that often she is depicted in this way out of a serious devotion and desire to show her submission to God’s will for her. 

They are not, however, a true representation of the Mary I know. 

For me she is an amazing woman who took on a role, which involved a ‘sword piercing her own heart also’ Luke 2:35).  A role that meant she would have to endure shame and misunderstanding from family and friends.  Even today, there are those who doubt her virginity and call her purity into question.  And all this before the hardship she had to endure as a refugee and, in all likelihood, as a single mother. Joseph apparently having died before Jesus began his ministry. 

This is a strong woman and we honour her. 

But is this all we do? 

For others in the Church, the Blessed Virgin Mary not only had a role in the past as our Lord’s mother.  And her role in the present is more than as a role model for our faith, important though that is.   In addition to all this, the Blessed Virgin Mary is a very real presence in their life. 

Our Lord on the Cross said to the disciple he loved, ‘Behold your mother’ (John 19:27).  Was this a gift just to the Beloved Disciple or something more?  For many of us, it was a gift of our Lord to all believers as the Blessed Virgin Mary becomes our mother too. 

I have in my hand a rosary and, for many Christians, praying the rosary is a vital part of their spiritual life. It is also much misunderstood.  It is seen by some as an unacceptable form of devotion to Mary that amounts to worship and idolatry.  However, as those who use it pray one of the most popular prayers in the Church, the ‘Hail Mary’, they meditate on various aspects of the life of our Lord from his birth to his death. 

At our Lord’s first miracle, at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, the Mother of our Lord said to the servants, ‘Whatever he tells you to do, do it’ (John 2:5).  The Blessed Virgin Mary always directs our attention to her Son and encourages us to obey him.  For many, Mary in a very real way, is not just an example of faith, but a companion on their spiritual journey.  She is someone they can turn to for support and, yes, for comfort too.  A mother, in fact! 

Today, the Feast of the Annunciation, reminds us of the importance of mothers and of the need to value and support them in the work they do.  The Blessed Virgin Mary shows us what it means to have faith - to trust and obey - as well as showing us the cost of discipleship and the sacrifices we too will have to make as we follow her Son. 

But more than this: she accompanies us on our path of discipleship: supporting us, encouraging us, and comforting us when we need it. 

Today we celebrate her: our Lord’s mother and ours. 

Hail Mary,
full of Grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit
of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary,
Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now,
and at the hour of our death. 


Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

This is the transcript of my sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent on March 22, 2020.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent


1 Samuel 16:1-13
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

The Gospel reading this morning is St John’s account of our Lord’s healing of a man who had been blind from birth.  Our Lord uses it as an opportunity not only to heal the man, but also to teach his disciples about spiritual blindness and to challenge his critics about theirs.  St John includes this story in his Gospel to teach us about ours.
It is important to remember that for St John and, indeed, for all the New Testament writers, we are all born blind.  Sadly, many of us, like the Pharisees in the story, simply refuse to admit it.  As they say to Jesus, ‘Surely, we are not blind, are we?’

Throughout the Gospel, St John, over and over again, makes the point that although Jesus is the light of the world and is the One who can take away people’s spiritual blindness, we humans prefer to stay in the darkness.  We refuse to come to the Light.

1. Why do we refuse to come the Light?

Quite simply, because to do so means we have to admit that we are in darkness; that we cannot see; and that we are, therefore, unable to help ourselves.  It is an affront to our pride and our belief in our power and ability.  Jesus’ verdict on the Pharisees in the story is his verdict on us:

‘If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.’ (John 9:41)

St John begins his account with the disciples asking Jesus, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?’  It is a bit of a weird question.  We can understand how the man’s blindness could be blamed on his parents, even if it seems harsh and unfair to do so.  We get that, in theory at least, it could be a punishment on them for something they have done.  It could even be as a consequence of lifestyle choices they had made before he was born, which had resulted in a physical disability, but how can he himself be blamed for being born blind?

The disciples’ question reflects a belief that someone must be responsible for the man’s blindness.  The link between a person’s condition in life with sin is one with a long history.  We still make the link today, although we use different terminology in making it.

Attributing the negative state a person is in to some fault of their birth or to them personally was not only common in the ancient world, it is common in our own even if we prefer not to use the language of sin.

So, for example, a person’s economic and social disadvantages are often blamed on the culture, class, or country into which they are born.  This is the thinking of many on the ‘left’ of the political spectrum.  It follows, then, that if you change society and challenge unjust structures within it, you change people’s lives for the better.

On the other hand, many on the ‘right’ of the political spectrum think that the individual is always responsible for their own life, both for the good and the bad in it.  Here, the disciples take it to an extreme and think apparently that the man born blind might have done something wrong in the womb!

We see both narratives being played out in our world at the present, often at the same time.  So, there is the campaign for greater social justice and for the removal of barriers that are said to hold people back.  And then there is the ‘you can achieve anything you want if you believe in yourself’ message that we are constantly being urged to accept.

It is, of course, true that much of the trouble we get ourselves into is down to ourselves and our choices.  Actions have consequences, and we can be too quick to blame society or other people for what is our own fault and no-one else’s.

It is also true that many have little or no choice about the situation in life in which they find themselves.  Children born to abusive parents who neglect and maltreat them clearly will not have the advantages of those born to loving, caring parents who do all they can for them.  A child born to poor parents in the slums of Latin America, for example, will not have the same life chances as a child born to rich parents in Silicon Valley.

The reality, however, is that the predicament that the human race finds itself in is due to a far deeper and more sinister cause.  Yes, human life is diminished by the evil that traps them in injustice and exploits them.  Yes, we do wrong and need to take responsibility for our actions.  But all this is part of a far deeper problem.  St John describes this as being in darkness, and our problem is that we are all in darkness. 

The darkness, however, is more than just a state, it is also a force.  A force that expresses itself in social and economic structures that imprison and destroy people, and it reaches deep into the hearts and being of each one of us.  While, however, the darkness expresses itself in many different ways, it exists independently of them.  Earlier in his Gospel, John has made clear just how bad the situation we find ourselves in really is:

‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’ (John 3:19)

We are all spiritually blind, slaves to sin, and in the power of spiritual forces beyond our control.  We even prefer darkness to light.

2. What, then, is to be done?

If the disciple’s question, ‘Who sinned, this man or his parents?’ is a troubling one, then Jesus’ answer seems even more troubling.  Jesus answers their question:

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’ (John 9:3)

Jesus appears to be saying that the man was selected and subjected to blindness so that God through Jesus could show how powerful he was.  The blind man is thus being used as a sort of visual aid – if you will forgive me for putting it that way!

Scholars who try to address this issue normally do so by appealing to Greek grammar to show that Jesus isn’t saying that God caused him to be born blind to reveal his work, but that God’s work is revealed in the man as a consequence of him being born blind.  God didn’t make the man blind to reveal his power, the man’s blindness made it possible for God to reveal his power in the man’s life by healing him.

I might not be personally responsible, for example, for someone having to beg on the street, but coming across a man begging gives me the opportunity to show how generous a person I am – or not, as the case may be!

Scholars who argue this way may or may not be right about the grammar, but we may be in danger of missing the point of what Jesus is saying to his disciples and of what, I think, he wants to say to us. 

When challenged by the Pharisees about how he gained his sight, the man born blind says:

‘Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.’ (John 9:32)

Again, it is true that the society where we are born and the family who we are born to affects both the person we are and the person we have the potential to become.  It is true, too, that we are responsible for our choices and decisions and the consequences of them.

But to put it plainly, it was only God who could do anything about the man’s blindness, and it is only God who can do anything about ours.

3. What does God do?

Jesus, having said that the man’s blindness will reveal God’s works, then does something very odd.  We know from the Gospels that Jesus has the power to heal and that he can do this simply by saying the word or by laying hands on the person needing healing.  Jesus can even heal over a distance when physically separated from the person needing healing as he did with the Centurion’s Son.

Instead here, Jesus spits on the ground and makes mud.  He then puts the mud on the man’s eyes and tells him to go and wash it off in the Pool of Siloam, which, St John tells us, means ‘Sent’.  So why the elaborate ritual?

Well, if you have been following these Broadcast Services and sermons during Lent, you will know the words that Lent begins with:

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

In the book of Genesis, man is created by God from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7).  Lent reminds us of both our fragility and mortality; something which, even at this time of crisis, we refuse to face up to.  The Rabbis spoke of how Adam was created from dust by God spitting on the ground and making him out the clay, out of the mud.

Two Sundays ago, for the Second Sunday of Lent, Jesus told Nicodemus, a Pharisee, that he must be ‘born again from above’.  (You can still listen to the service and sermon on YouTube!)  Nicodemus, however, simply doesn’t get it.  He doesn’t see it!

Here Jesus, in healing the man born blind gives a practical demonstration of what he said to Nicodemus by repeating the action of God at the creation of the first man.  The man born blind is not only given physical sight, he is brought to new birth and given spiritual sight.  For the story of the man born blind from birth doesn’t end with the man’s physical healing, but with him coming to faith in Christ and worshipping him.

What is also interesting in all this is the reaction of the Pharisees.  What they cannot understand or cope with is not that Jesus can heal, but that he chooses to do so on the Sabbath!

Here our prejudices blind us to the significance of what is going on.  We, again as I have said in recent sermons, see the Pharisees stereo-typically as the bad guys.  In many ways, however, they weren’t bad guys, and no-one at the time thought they were.  They were deeply committed to God and to doing what God wanted.

We need to remember that keeping the Sabbath wasn’t just about having a day off each week.  It wasn’t simply a day for people to enjoy themselves and do whatever they liked.  ‘Keeping the Sabbath holy’ was one of the 10 commandments from God alongside not murdering, committing adultery, stealing or lying.  If it was wrong to murder, it was wrong to work on the Sabbath.  Jesus healing on the Sabbath was the equivalent of a doctor opening his clinic on a Sunday.  The Pharisees weren’t against Jesus healing people, they just thought he should do it on another day.

We let our faith in ourselves get in the way of worshipping God.  The Pharisees let their faith in God get in the way of worshipping Jesus.  What they couldn’t see was that in Jesus, God was coming to them, and so he could decide what could or could not be done on the day of the week especially set aside for him.

The Pharisees, for good motives, sought to regulate the worship of God, and in the process became blind to the God they sought to worship.  It is a warning to us that both our desire to worship God and the rules we establish for his worship can themselves prevent us from seeing God.  We must throw aside all restrictions and allow God to open our eyes, so we can see him as he himself chooses to reveal himself to us in Christ.

Those who occupy positions of leadership and influence in the Church need to be very careful that the rules, regulations, and restrictions that they place on people, even when for the best of reasons, do not turn out to be the very things that prevent people coming to a place where, like the man born blind, they can see clearly to be able worship God in Christ.

Questioned by the Pharisees and asked whether he knew that the man who healed him was a sinner, the man born blind replied.

‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ (John 9:25)

Conclusion: ‘Come and See’.

Jesus first words in John’s Gospel were to Andrew and another disciple.  He asked them, ‘What are you looking for?’  They answered him, ‘Rabbi, where are you staying.  Jesus replied, ‘Come and see’.  (John 1:38-39)  Last week, the woman at the well in Samaria said to the people of the place where she lived, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.’ (John 4:29)

Come and see!

Today, Jesus invites us to ‘Come and see’ so that with the man born blind, and countless others who have responded to his invitation, we too may worship Jesus and be able to say with confidence:

‘One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Third Sunday of Lent

This is the transcript of my sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent on March 15, 2020.

The Third Sunday of Lent


Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Today’s Gospel is a well-known reading.  It is St John’s account of the meeting between Jesus and the woman at the well in Samaria.  During this meeting, Jesus reveals his true identity to the woman as the Messiah that she and her people have been expecting and waiting for.

There is so much in this story that it would take several sermons to unpack them all!  For today, I want to focus on three things.

1. We need to hear the truth about ourselves.

When Jesus’ disciples return from having been into the nearby town to buy food, we are told that they are shocked to find Jesus speaking with a woman!  The woman had herself been shocked when Jesus spoke to her, a Samaritan woman, and asked her for water.  Not only was it shocking that he spoke with a woman, he spoke as a Jew with a Samaritan.  This was something Jews did not do because of the hatred that existed between Jew and Samaritan.

And this was not just any Samaritan woman, but a woman with both a complicated past and a scandalous present.  She had already had 5 husbands and, to make matters even worse, the man she was now living with was not her husband, thus breaking the moral norms of her day.  The fact that she was at the well at midday might indicate that she wasn’t able to socialize because of her lifestyle.  Normally, women came to the well in the morning when it was cool, not at noon-time when it was hot.

The difference between her and Nicodemus, whose meeting with Jesus we read about in the Gospel reading last week, could not be more stark. 

In the Gospels, Jesus attracts criticism from people like Nicodemus on account of whom he associates with.  In Luke’s Gospel, we are told, for example, that the Pharisees and scribes complained that Jesus ‘welcomed sinners and ate with them’ (Luke 15:2).  Here at Samaria he welcomes one and drinks with her.

To put it quite simply: Jesus refuses to accept the barriers we create that prevent us reaching out to people with the message of the Gospel.

It is, however, important to note that Jesus breaks down the barriers of his day for a purpose.  He doesn’t do so to shock or because he enjoys offending people, although in the process he does both.  He doesn’t do so because he approves of the woman’s choices, any more than he approved of the tax-collectors for stealing from people.  He breaks down the barriers because he refuses to allow man-made conventions to restrict him from reaching out to people.  The reason, however, he reaches out in this way to people, to all people regardless who they are or what they have done, is to save them.  That, he said, was why he had come.  He came to ‘seek and to save the lost’ (Matthew 18:11).

Notice though, that he didn’t come to seek the lost and tell them they weren’t lost really, and that people had simply got them wrong or misunderstood them.  Jesus came to save them from that which had caused them to get lost in the first place.

The Pharisees’ problem wasn’t that they had got it wrong in thinking that people like the woman at the well were lost, but in thinking that such people couldn’t be saved.  The Pharisees also, and perhaps more importantly, didn’t realize that they were as lost as she was.

To save the lost, Jesus tells them the truth about their lostness in a way that shows that he is not doing so to condemn them, but to rescue and change them.

We as Jesus’ followers today need the same courage.

The courage to defy the conventions and restrictions that prevent people from hearing of the love of God and the courage to tell people the truth about themselves.  And it does take courage for many will not like us reaching out to people they disapprove of and the people we reach out to won’t always like what we have to say to them.  Nevertheless, we must tell people the truth about themselves, not because we are better than they are, but because Jesus has shown us the truth about ourselves.

Jesus, later in John’s Gospel, speaking with the Pharisees and other religious people tells them:

‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’ (John 8:32)

They protest at the suggestion that they need setting free.  They, after all, are descendants of Abraham.  They are good Jews, members of the people of God.  Jesus responds to their protest:

‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.’ (John 8:34)

Jesus’ words about the truth setting us free are often taken to refer to the truth about God and about himself as the Son of God.  It certainly involves that, but perhaps more importantly, as Jesus makes plain, it refers to the truth about ourselves.  The truth that we are sinners who are slaves to sin and who need saving.

It is this that makes the divisions we create and maintain between people so ridiculous.  In God’s sight, we are all equal; equal, that is, in our sin and in our need of saving.

This is the truth about ourselves that we all need to hear.  Not the lie that we are wonderful and can achieve anything we want to if we set our minds to it, but the truth that we are horrible and trapped in our horribleness.  It is only when we are willing to hear this truth about ourselves that we can find the way to freedom; a way that is only to be found in Jesus himself.

John Calvin, the sixteenth century reformer, began the Institutes of the Christian Religion, his most important work, with these words:

‘Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.’

Calvin continues to explain that when we come to know God and his greatness, we cannot help but see all too clearly our weakness and sin.  And when we know our weakness and sin, we are brought to the God who can alone help and save us.  It is for this reason that those who believe in their own wonderfulness and innate goodness can never know God.

2. We need to find God for ourselves.

The woman at the well, after her encounter with Jesus, immediately leaves her water jar and abandons what she had originally come to the well to do.  She forgets what she was doing and goes to tell people in her hometown about her meeting with Jesus and how he has told her the truth about herself.  She says to them:

‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!’ (John 4:29)

Her enthusiasm for Jesus overcomes the barrier between herself and the people of the town.  This is how we are to reach out to people.  We are to invite them to come and see the one who has told us the truth about ourselves and will tell them the truth about themselves.  There is no room for judgement or a sense of superiority, just a desire to tell people the truth that will set them free; truth that, again, is to be found only in Christ.

The townspeople are obviously impressed by the impact that Jesus has had on the woman and go looking for Jesus to find out what all the fuss is about.  After spending time with him, they tell the woman:

‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’ (John 4:42)

The one, who in the past, they refused to talk to is the one who tells them about Jesus, but they still had to come to know the truth for themselves.  And now they do!  They know that Jesus truly is the Saviour of the world.

People come to Church and believe in Jesus for many reasons.  Perhaps it is something they have done since they were first brought to Church by their parents as a child.  Perhaps because they want their own children to share the benefits they see in coming to Church.  There are many more reasons besides.  And there is nothing wrong with going to Church and believing because of them, but it is not enough.

We need to go a step further: we need to hear and know for ourselves.  This, sadly, is a step that many either fail or refuse to take.  It is, however, one that we must take and must take for ourselves.  No-one can take it for us.

3. We need to take what Christ offers us seriously.

Jesus in his conversation with the woman at the well says to her:

‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ (John 4:13)

At the moment, the world is in the grip of panic caused by COVID-19.  People, quite literally, fear for their lives and for the lives of their loved ones.  Desperate measures are being taken by governments to limit the spread of the virus and to prevent people from getting infected.  It is this fear that has even led to our Church services being cancelled.

We take the threat to our lives very seriously and fear the consequences of not doing so.  And we are right to do so.  It is a pandemic the like of which most of have never experienced.

And this is exactly how we should react to hearing the truth about ourselves.  We take the threat to our physical health seriously but are indifferent and complacent about our spiritual health.

Even if we survive this threat to our lives, we will get ill again.  We will all die.  That is the most basic fact of life.  We are equal in our sin and we are equal in our mortality.  Rich and poor, all will die.  As St Paul reminds us, we all ‘brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it’ (1 Timothy 6:7).

What Jesus offers us is the water of life.  The water he gives he says will give us life eternal life.  Life that begins now, but which will last forever.  It is life that, yet again, only he can give.

If only we realized the truth about ourselves and the life that Jesus can give, we would not be so causal about our faith and so unmoved by what Jesus tells us.

It is tragic that so many refuse to take their spiritual health seriously.  It is even more tragic that we who claim to be followers of Jesus behave as if what he has given us is no big deal and that we can take it or leave it depending on how we are feeling.

St Ignatius writing at the beginning of the second century described the Eucharist that I am about to celebrate as the ‘medicine of immortality’.  How ironic, then, that today because of our fear of sickness and death, we are unable to share that which points us to him who is able to heal us and give us eternal life.

Christ gives us the water of life!  Surely it is something that we should celebrate and treasure?

Today, then, may we hear the truth about ourselves and in hearing it come to know Him who alone can give us the ‘medicine of life’ to heal us and save us.

May we, like the people of Samaria, be able to say:

‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’ (John 4:42)


Sunday, March 08, 2020

The Second Sunday of Lent

This is the transcript of my sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent on March 8, 2020.

The Second Sunday of Lent, 2020


Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5,13-17 
John 3:1-17

Our Gospel reading this week contains two very famous well-known and well-loved verses.

The first is in John 3:3. Jesus is in Jerusalem, and he has been making quite an impression on people, not all of it favourable.  Although it is still the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, in John’s account of it, already Jesus is making enemies amongst the authorities there.

Not all, however, are against him, and one person, in particular, wants to find out more.  He is Nicodemus, who, John tells us, is a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews.  Nicodemus comes, therefore, to Jesus by night to find out more about him.

Some commentaries suggest Nicodemus came by night because he would have been too busy during the day, and this would have been a convenient time for him.  It is much more likely that it is because he doesn’t want to be seen!  But, in John’s Gospel, ‘night’ also has a symbolic significance.  Nicodemus comes by night, but it is clear that is he who is in darkness.

Nicodemus begins by complimenting Jesus:

‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ (John 3:2)

This is more than flattery.  He genuinely does believe that Jesus could not be doing what he is doing unless God is with him.  But he still doesn’t know what to make of it.

Jesus gets straight to the point.  He tells Nicodemus bluntly:

‘Unless a person is born again, they cannot see the Kingdom of God.’  (John 3:3)

Nicodemus is shocked, he asks:

‘How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ (John 3:4)

This famous exchange has given rise to some Christians describing themselves as ‘born again Christians’ to distinguish themselves, apparently, from those Christians who have not.

It is true that many who claim to be Christians have not had a personal encounter with God, and there are many more who seem to be Christian in name only.  The use of the term ‘born again Christian’ is an attempt to describe the sort of experience that Jesus is talking of here.  Nevertheless, it is not a very happy distinction to make because it suggests that it is possible to be a follower of Christ and not be ‘born again’.

Jesus, however, is not seeking to distinguish between different types of Christians.  As far as our Lord is concerned, this is non-negotiable.  He says that to see the Kingdom of God you must be born again.  Or does he?

He certainly says something must happen, but you will see that in some translations what Jesus says must happen is that a person must be born ‘from above’ rather than ‘born again’.  The Greek word that John uses here is ‘anothen’, which can be translated either ‘again’ or ‘from above’.  So, which is it?

In one sense, it doesn’t matter.  If it is ‘born from above’, it would also imply, given that this is not how we are born naturally, that we would have also to be born again.  And if the right translation is ‘born again’, then that would beg the question as to how it is to happen.  This is something that Jesus goes on to talk about with his insistence on being ‘born of the Spirit’.  So each translation implies the other.

But, in any case, we probably don’t have to choose as St John likes these sort of ambiguities and probably intends us to understand the word he uses both ways.  He certainly makes clear that both are true.  Of course, having sorted that out we are still left with the question of how and why.

The ‘why’, Jesus tells Nicodemus, is because those born once from below are flesh.  Flesh here, refers not to the physical matter of which we are made, although it includes that.  It is all that we are in our natural state as human beings.  It is the way we are born.  But why should being naturally human not be good enough?  And how are we to be born again from above?

For the answer to these two questions, we need to move to the second famous verse in this passage:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

This has been described as the golden verse of the Bible, and it is one that we read here at Christ Church every time we celebrate the Eucharist.

The reason that God gave his only Son, it tells us, was so that we would not perish, so that we may be saved, and so we would not be condemned.  But if that’s the case, then it follows that, as things stand, we are perishing and are in need of saving, and that unless we are saved, we stand condemned.

This, then, is what Jesus means to be ‘flesh’.

St Paul describes us as being ‘dead in our trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1).  St John would not disagree.  He records Jesus as saying that he had come that people might ‘have life and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10).  In his first letter, he writes:

‘Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.’  (1 John 5:12)

Dead, perishing, condemned, and in need of saving; no wonder that we need nothing less than new birth.

The answer to the how question, then, is also clear.  The new birth we so desperately need, must, says Jesus, be from above.  For to be born again from above is for Jesus something that can only be accomplished by God himself.  Our new birth can only come by the work of the Spirit through faith in the One who God gave for us.  It is not something that we are able to accomplish ourselves.  We are too lost and far gone for that.  There’s nothing we can do to save ourselves.

And here’s the problem: we don’t like thinking of ourselves in this way.  We do like that Jesus promises us an abundant life.  We are happy to follow him as a Rabbi, a teacher who can act as our guide when we feel the need of one.  But having to write-off our existing life as quite literally a dead loss is not something that we are quite so keen on.

So, what to do?  Some just simply write Jesus off instead.  Sure, he says some things that sound good and which may even be worth exploring, if we had the time, but, after all, he’s just one teacher amongst many.  No need to confine ourselves just to him.

Many of us, however, for all sorts of reasons, don’t want to write Jesus off.  Like Nicodemus, we are attracted to him and like some of what he has to say.  We like, for example, what we see as his welcoming and inclusive approach to people; the way he reaches out to those in trouble and accepts people no matter how they may have failed in the past and regardless of who they are or where they have come from.

So, we do what Peter tried to do when Jesus said things he didn’t want to hear: we try to shut him up.  Or we just ignore them.  We take those things he says which we like, and which indeed have truth in them, and make them our Gospel.

We make as our Gospel what the Devil tried to get Jesus to make his Gospel in our reading from Matthew last week.  Jesus is the Son of God and, therefore, can make bread out of stone, so he will provide for us materially.  God does indeed promise, as the Devil points out, to look after his Son and keep him from harm, so he will look after us and keep us from harm if we follow him.  And the Kingdoms of this world together with their power and glory rightfully belong to Jesus, so why shouldn’t they belong to us who believe in him too?

The Devil tested Jesus by trying to persuade him to follow a way that was based on material satisfaction, well-being, and success.  One which put himself and his needs firmly at the centre.  The Devil failed with Jesus, but he has succeeded with us.

And so, this is increasingly the sort of Gospel on offer in many Churches.  As I said last week, it is the Devil’s Gospel.  Oh yes, we can appeal to Biblical texts in support of it just as the Devil did, but they are texts which are being used as a pretext to avoid what God wants of us.  It is a Gospel that appeals to those born of the flesh, but not yet born of the Spirit.

So maybe we need to distinguish between Christians after all.  For to be born again from above by the Spirit means believing in Jesus and following him in the way he opened up for us; a way that is narrow and hard and leads to the Cross.

Yesterday was the Feast Day of Perpetua and Felicity and their companions.  They were followers of Christ at the beginning of the third century who rejected the Devil’s Gospel and refused to take the easy way.  Followers who put Christ at the centre of their lives and who paid for it with their lives.

‘This is how much God loved the world’, St John writes, that he gave his only Son for us, and now he calls us to give ourselves to his Son.

Jesus told his followers that the only way to life was to ‘eat his flesh and drink his blood’ and that unless we did so we would ‘not have his life within us’ (John 6:53).  Only, in other words, by completely identifying with him and accepting his way will we find the way to life.  Only this way can we be born again from above by the Spirit.  No wonder that many of his disciples decided after he said this to stop following him.  Too much!  It was just too much.

After many had deserted him, Jesus asked his closest disciples, ‘Do you also want to go away?’ (John 6:67).  It is a question Jesus now asks us.  St Peter answered Jesus:

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68)

It was the answer that Perpetua, Felicity, and their friends gave when they were asked to turn away from Christ.  They preferred instead death, a violent and bloody death, rather than even contemplate such a desertion.

And so today the choice is ours:

‘For this is how much God loved us that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’

Will we believe in him or will we, like so many, turn away?

May we respond like St Peter and like Sts Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions did:

‘Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.’

In other words, may we show by our faith in Jesus that we are people who have been born again from above.


Friday, March 06, 2020

The First Sunday of Lent

This is the transcript of my sermon for the First Sunday of Lent on March 1, 2020.

The First Sunday of Lent


Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

One of our universities here in Hong Kong wrote this in an online communication recently:

‘Your health and safety are always our top priority.  Please stay vigilant and continue to make personal health your top priority.’
Similar statements have been issued by other universities, organizations, and employers during the present situation.

On Wednesday, we began Lent and today is the first Sunday in Lent.  Lent is modelled on our Lord’s 40 days in the wilderness.  Our Gospel reading this morning is St Matthew’s account of this time.  It is often described as Jesus’ ‘temptation in the wilderness’.  This, however, is a misunderstanding of what was, in fact, happening.

Immediately before his time in the wilderness, Jesus had been baptized by John the Baptist.  As he was baptized a Voice from heaven had declared:

‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ (Matthew 3:17)

At the same time the Holy Spirit had descended on him in the form of a dove.

The first thing the Spirt does after descending on Jesus is to lead Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the Devil.  In other words, Jesus’ time in the wilderness and his encounter with the Devil is something that God wants to happen.  The purpose of this examination is not to tempt Jesus to see whether Jesus can resist sin, but to test him to find out whether he understands the true nature of what it means to be God’s Son.

Even at the age of 12, we are told by St Luke, Jesus knew he should be about his ‘Father’s business’, and he left his mother and father to spend time in the temple, his Father’s house.  After they found him, he went back with them to Nazareth where he stayed with them and where nothing is heard of him until his baptism by John.

During this time at Nazareth, he must have been reflecting on the business that God had for him.  His time in the wilderness then is like a final examination to test whether he is ready, and God has given the job of testing him to the toughest of examiners.

There are three tests.  They are all to do with what it means to be God’s Son and his readiness for the business God has for him.  Some translations give the wrong impression here.  The Devil doesn’t say, ‘If you are God’s Son …’ in the sense that there is some doubt about it.  A better translation would be, ‘As you are God’s Son …’  The Devil is picking up on what the Voice from heaven has said and asking Jesus if he understands what it means to be God’s Son.

As it happens, there is indeed a temptation here.  There is nothing the Devil can do about the fact that Jesus is God’s Son.  That’s a given.  What the Devil desperately wants is for Jesus to be a particular type of God’s Son; one who will ultimately serve him, the Devil, rather than God himself.

The first test is quite a straightforward one.  Jesus has been fasting, that is, not eating so he can concentrate on praying.  Naturally, he is hungry.  Very hungry.  There is, says the Devil, an obvious solution: turn the stone into bread.  You are God’s Son, the Devil is saying, you have the power to do so.

Jesus famously answers:

‘It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ (Matthew 4:4)

Jesus has passed the first test.

We need, however, to see the full significance of this test.  It is, of course, about Jesus’ hunger on a personal level.  But also, at the very beginning of the testing, it is a test that gets to the heart of what kind of Son Jesus is going to be.  Will he be one who will prioritize physical need?

By satisfying his hunger in the way the Devil suggested, Jesus would be showing where his priorities lay.  The Devil must have thought this was a good test to use.  After all, he had caught out the first man and woman by tempting them with something to eat.  The people of Israel, during their 40 years in the wilderness, had complained against God because they were hungry.

Jesus, however, shows right away where his priority lies.  It is not because he doesn’t care about physical need.  Much of his ministry will be about healing people and bringing people to health and wholeness.  He will have pity on those who are hungry, and he will perform an amazing miracle in the wilderness to feed five thousand hungry people at one time.  He will not, however, put physical need before hearing the Word of God.

For the second test in Matthew’s Gospel, the Devil suggests that Jesus should throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple.  The Devil points out that this would involve no real risk because God had promised to look after his Son so that he came to no harm.  There is then no real risk here and think of the benefit.  It would show everyone at a stroke that Jesus was indeed God’s Son.

Jesus replies, again quoting scripture:

‘Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ (Matthew 4:7)

If Jesus had done as the Devil suggested, it would have been like a student going into an examination and rather than sitting the exam, instead questioning the examiner.  It would have been to miss the point.  And it would be to imply that Jesus’ personal safety is what counts and that God will preserve him from all harm.  It would be to put himself and his need for recognition and popularity at the centre of his mission.  This Jesus refuses to do.

And so to the final and most difficult test.

The Devil shows Jesus all the Kingdoms of the world and all their glory.  All Jesus has to do is worship the Devil and they will be his.  As God’s Son, he has come to bring the Kingdom of God to earth.  He will teach his disciples to pray for this very thing whenever they pray.  What the Devil will offer is a short cut.  One that does not involve the pain and suffering of the Cross.  The end the Devil offers is what the mission God has given Jesus is to achieve.  The means the Devil offers to Jesus to achieve it is not.

No-one would have blamed Jesus if he had taken the Devil’s way.  Later in his ministry, it is the way that his own disciples want him to take.  It is the way his Church and followers throughout history all too often were to take.  Popularity, power, and glory are sought by everyone from athletes to entertainers; from politicians to business leaders; from popes to preachers.  Television programmes gain massive audiences by offering contestants the path to glory.  The Devil offered Jesus the same and he refused.

But why?

‘Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” (Matthew 4:10)

As God’s Son, he is not only to put God at the centre of his life and mission, he is to serve God in the way that God wants and that means to the exclusion of anything or anyone else that demands or desires worship or gets in the way of worshipping the One true God.

I love the way Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness ends.  St Matthew tells us:

‘Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.’ (Matthew 4:11)

I don’t know if you have seen how, at some universities, when the final exams are over, friends will gather and wait outside the examination hall to celebrate with the person who has been taking the examination.  The Devil has tested Jesus in the way the Holy Spirit wanted now for a moment there is a brief celebration.  Jesus truly does understand what it means to be God’s Son, and he knows not only what his mission is, but also how it must be achieved.

Its been a tough series of tests.  As God’s Son, he had an absolute right to food, protection, and power.  The question has been whether as God’s Son this is what he is going to prioritize and pursue and whether this is what he is going to offer his followers.  Now we have the answer.

But it is not necessarily the answer we want or like to hear.

We quite like the idea of a God who feeds us, who looks after us, and who makes us successful.  After all, what’s the point of believing in God and going to all the trouble of worshipping him if there is nothing in it for us?  We like a Gospel that promises us physical and material well-being.  And to a greater or lesser degree, this is exactly the sort of Gospel that all too often is what is on offer in our Churches.  The irony is that it is the Devil’s Gospel.  It is the one he offered Jesus in the wilderness and which Jesus so emphatically rejected.

It is one that would certainly have got Jesus more followers in the same way we believe it will get us more church members and, indeed, it often does.  Jesus speaks about how it is the only few who take the way he offers, precisely because his way is so hard and often painful.

So why make it so difficult?  Well here’s the thing: because ‘our health and safety are not God’s top priority’.  Saving us from our sin is.

Lent began on Wednesday with the words: ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’.  St Paul tells us in today’s second reading that from the time another son failed the test, human beings have been infected with a deadly virus that has a 100% fatality rate.  The problem is sin and the result is death.

This is simply something that we do not want to hear.  What we want to hear are soothing words about how important we are and how important our health and safety are.  We don’t want to be told we are ‘dust and to dust we shall return’.  And the life advice we want is to be told take ourselves seriously: ‘to stay vigilant and to continue to make our personal health and well-being our top priority’.

What instead we are told is that ‘we should turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’.  We are to worship the Lord our God and serve only him, even if serving and doing other things would bring power and success.  We are to trust God even if trusting him seems to put our physical health and safety at risk.  And we are to put our desire for God’s word and spiritual food before our desire for physical satisfaction.

When the friends of a man who could not walk lowered him down through the roof in front of Jesus, Jesus said to him:

‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’ (Matthew 9:2)

What the man’s friends thought he needed was to be able to walk.  What Jesus thought he needed was for his sins to be forgiven.  It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t care about his physical suffering.  He healed him after all.  It was just that only healing the paralyzed man would simply have meant that he became a sinner who could walk as opposed to one who couldn’t.  The man’s need was to be forgiven so that he had the opportunity, if he wanted to take it, to walk with God.

So today, ‘please stay vigilant and make your relationship with God your top priority’.

‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’
‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’