Saturday, March 26, 2022

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Reading: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Our Gospel reading this week begins:

‘Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”’ (Luke 15:1-2)

This is becoming something of a theme in St Luke’s Gospel. Back in chapter 5, St Luke describes how Jesus is getting his team of disciples together and recruits, Levi, a tax-collector (Luke 5:27-28). St Luke tells how even then the Pharisees and their scribes were already complaining about how Jesus was associating with people who had a bad reputation (Luke 5:30). This was not just an occasional occurrence on Jesus’ part. Jesus regularly associated with those who were considered by many religious people to be morally disreputable.

St Luke tells us that so common was this accusation against him that Jesus even refers to it himself. Contrasting his own style of ministry with that of John the Baptist, Jesus says:

‘For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”’ (Luke 7:33-34)

Now, later in his ministry, the accusation is made explicitly again. Jesus responds to it with three much loved and well-known parables: the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7), the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10), and what is commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

The parable of the ‘Prodigal Son’ is the main focus of our Gospel reading. It is probably the most famous of Jesus’ parables, but it is also frequently misunderstood. If you ask most people what it means, their reply will be that it is about how God forgives us or about how we should forgive people. We understand the emphasis of the parable to be on forgiveness, and that’s right as far as it goes. In the past, when people thought about this parable, they concentrated on the welcome the younger son receives from the father, and this is reflected in the art and literature that has been inspired by the parable.

There is now, however, a greater realization that Jesus’ message and purpose in telling the parable lies in his description of the behaviour of the elder son. What the parable says about the younger son and the father’s forgiveness is important, but the parable builds up to the elder son and his reaction to the father’s forgiveness of the younger son. Jesus is saying to the Pharisees and scribes that the way they are reacting to his welcome of sinners is like the elder son’s reaction to the father’s welcome of the younger son. Jesus forgives the sinners he eats with and is glad to welcome them, so too, the parable suggests, the Pharisees and scribes should join in welcoming them.

So far so good. And it is good that nowadays preachers and commentators remember the point of the parable, and don’t only focus on the prodigal younger son. We like the Father’s forgiveness of the younger son and we like the idea of a party to celebrate his return. We rejoice at what we see as the condemnation of the mean-minded religious types who disapprove of having a good time. We are personally reassured that we don’t have too much to worry about if we go wrong. We know God will forgive us. At the same time, we like having our attitudes to stuffy religious types confirmed and reinforced. This is our sort of parable and, of course, we conveniently forget some of the other parables that have for us a less congenial message. This is the parable we want to hear.

Or do we?

Let’s hear it then. By hear it, I mean hear it as Jesus means it to be understood and not as we want to understand it.

The parable begins with the younger son doing something that even today would be frowned on, but which, in Jesus’ day, would be completely unforgiveable. The younger son basically tells his father he wishes his father was dead and that he wants his inheritance now. Somewhat surprisingly, the father agrees, and divides his property between his two sons.

The younger son can’t wait to get away. He wants to enjoy life and to travel, so that’s what he does, spending what he has been given by his father on what Jesus describes as ‘dissolute living’. It is important to note that there is no suggestion in the parable that what the younger son does is anything other than wrong. There is no attempt to explain or to excuse his behaviour.

When you go on spending money, it will eventually run out; and when it’s gone, it’s gone. To make matters worse for the younger son in the story, disaster hits the part of the world where the younger son is now living. There’s a famine, and for the first time in his life the younger son ‘began to be in need’. So bad does the situation get that he has to hire himself out, and the work he is given is with the pigs. Jesus puts this into the story to indicate that the younger son’s situation is about as bad it gets. Jews and pigs don’t go together. Worse still, he is so hungry that he would happily have eaten the pig’s food. He is utterly alone with no-one to help him.

In verse 17, Jesus describes how he comes to himself. He is working as a hired hand, and still he is dying of hunger. His father’s hired hands have food enough and to spare! This moment of enlightenment, however, is not just about his situation; it’s about himself and the seriousness of what he has done: he has sinned against God and his father; he is no longer worthy to be called a son; he needs to be treated like a hired hand. To be allowed to live is the most he can hope for. He turns and returns.

He is still ‘far off’ when his father sees him coming. When he sees his son, his father is filled with compassion. The father runs to him and hugs and kisses him. The son, however, is genuinely very much aware of the wrong he has done, and still says what he had planned to say. He has sinned against God and his father; he is no longer worthy to be called his son.

The father, however, orders his slaves to bring a robe, a ring, and sandals all symbols of forgiveness and acceptance. But not only that the father orders a celebration: the fatted calf is to be killed. The father explains the reason for this welcome and celebration:

‘… for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ (Luke 15:24)

In the past there has been the temptation to stop here. Quite rightly, we now realize there is still some way to go in the story. The elder son has been out working in the field. He is naturally puzzled by the sound of music and dancing when he comes home. Perfectly reasonably, he asks one of the slaves what is going on. Understandably, he is not exactly pleased when he is told his brother has returned.

He refuses to go in to the house. As the father ran to his younger son, so now the father goes out to his elder son. The elder son’s complaint is a fair one. He has been faithful in working for his father; he has obeyed his commands; and, in all this time, there has been no party for him. Now his brother has returned, ‘having devoured his father’s property with prostitutes’, there is a lavish celebration for him. The elder son refuses to acknowledge the younger son as his brother, describing him to his father as ‘this son of yours’.

There is no question that what the younger son has done is seriously wrong and there is no disagreement between the father and the elder son about how wrong it was. Both when the younger son returns and when talking with the elder son, the father says that the younger son:

‘… was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ (Luke 15:24, 32)

The question the parable addresses is what should be the reaction when someone who has done great wrong acknowledges that wrong, is sorry for it, and turns from it.

Jesus thought the sinners turning from the wrong they had done and turning to God should be celebrated. The Pharisees, however, thought that the wrong the tax-collectors and sinners had done could not be so simply and easily forgotten.

We, of course, side with the father in the story and with Jesus in his attitude to the Pharisees and scribes as we are supposed to. But what if the younger son had been a rapist, a people trafficker, a drug dealer, or all three before returning home, should there still have been a party to welcome him? Would we still side against the elder son for refusing to join in the singing and dancing? Tax-collectors and sinners included some pretty horrible people. We should perhaps try a little harder to understand why the Pharisees and scribes behaved like the elder son. The familiarity of the story means it has largely lost its impact on us, which is sad. What Jesus asks of the Pharisees and scribes - and of us - is scandalous and shocking!

Worse still, however, we use it to excuse our own sin and wrongdoing and fail to see how the parable challenges us both about our sin and our attitude to other people who have sinned. The parable does not teach that we needn’t worry about sin because God will always forgive it. The seriousness of the younger son’s sin is not minimized in the story in any way nor is it simply assumed that the father would forgive the younger son and welcome him home. Those hearing the parable for the first time would have no idea how the father in the story was going to react when the son returns.

The younger son’s behaviour was so bad that the only way of describing him was as dead, lost, and worthless. It is this that makes the father’s welcome home so amazing and the elder son’s reaction so understandable. What Jesus is asking of the Pharisees is right, but it is not always easy. It’s easier when you don’t take sin seriously, and it is easier with some sins more than others, but for those who care about right and wrong and the harm that evil does to people, then welcoming, for example, the repentant racist, rapist, and wrongdoer and partying with them is not easy. But this is exactly what Jesus is asking us to do.

I want to look at what we can learn from this story using four words: wrath, repentance, reconciliation, and rejoicing.

1. Wrath

St Paul, in his letter to the Church at Rome, introduces the theme of his letter by telling the Roman believers that he is not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith, the Jew first, but also the Greek (Romans 1:16-17). Immediately after telling them this, St Paul writes:

‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.’ (Romans 1:18)

In other words, as St Paul will go on to explain in some detail, we all need saving because we are all under the judgement of God and facing his wrath. St Paul is expressing to the Roman believers what, as we saw in our Gospel reading last week, Jesus said to the crowds. He warned them:

‘… unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’ (Luke 13:3, 5)

Jesus told many parables on the theme of judgement, although these are not nearly so popular for some reason as our parable this week! Nevertheless, while not the main point of the parable about the two sons, Jesus’ message of repent or perish is a necessary part of the background to it. It is only because the younger son realizes he is perishing and that he is quite literally dying from hunger, that the younger son comes to his senses and returns to his father.

I talked about this theme at some length last week, so I won’t dwell on it again this week, except to say the parable makes no sense without it. (The sermon can still be heard or read online for those who are interested!)

Like the younger son, we need to realize that our choices, actions, and lifestyle what the Bible calls sin, have landed us in real trouble, and we too will perish unless something is done.

2. Repentance

The something that needs to be done is for us to repent. Jesus’ description of the younger son shows us what this involves. First of all, it means realizing the mess we are in. Living in a pigsty is no fun. It is only when he realizes how desperate his situation is and how badly he has behaved that the younger son comes to his senses.

The criticism is often made of those who follow Christ that our faith is not rational and that faith is somehow contrary to reality. The truth is that we are not in a rational state of mind before we come to faith and we cannot think rationally without it. St Paul writes of the consequences when humans first left their Father for another country. St Paul writes:

‘… for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.’ (Romans 1:21)

Again as I have said in previous sermons, the big thing in our day is to be true to yourself, to believe in yourself, and to follow your dreams. It was precisely this philosophy of life that got the younger son into the mess he found himself in. He thought that by asserting himself, he would find freedom. By following a path he thought would lead to freedom, he instead ended up lost, and it is only when he ‘comes to himself’ and admits his failure and sin that he is able to take the steps he needs to make to find his way home.

Doubtless, if questioned, he would have argued that what he was doing by leaving his father’s home was being true to himself and that no-one and nothing should be allowed to limit his personal freedom. We are deeply attached to the idea of having freedom and independence. We want to make our own choices and decisions. The trouble is we are not very good at it. It was because he was given his freedom that younger son ended up losing all freedom. By doing what felt right, following his dreams, and fulfilling his desires, rather than finding himself, he got lost and destroyed himself.

It is only when he comes to himself and sees that he has sinned against God and his father that he can find redemption. Repentance is about coming to ourself, realizing we are lost, and accepting that we have no-one to blame for it but ourself. As the younger son puts it:

‘I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ (Luke 15:18-19)

His journey home begins when he realizes that being a servant in his father’s home is better than being free in a foreign country. As George Matheson wrote in the hymn, ‘Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free.’ It is only when we turn to God from the captivity of our sin that we can find true freedom.

3. Reconciliation

Repentance is essential, but it is not enough. Without repentance we can never find spiritual healing and hope, but seeing the mess we are in, and acknowledging it is our own fault that we are in it, is not going to get us out of it.

We are so familiar with the story of the father’ acceptance of the younger son that there is a tendency to think that if we simply say ‘sorry’ that’s enough, God will just forgive us, and all will be OK. It’s not quite like that. The younger son has to come to a point where he knows he is no more worthy to be called a son. He realizes that he cannot expect his father to take him back as a son; the most he can hope for is to be a worker in his father’s house.

It is all very well knowing we need God, but what is God’s attitude in all this? We have to move from repentance to reconciliation, and all the repentance and sorrow for sin, important though it is, counts for nothing until we are reconciled with God and find peace with him. Repentance is something we have to do; reconciliation, however, is something only God can do.

St Paul writes about this in our second reading this week. He writes of how God has reconciled those in Christ to himself. He describes how God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sin against us. St Paul is describing in theological language what happens in the story.

While younger son is still a long way off, the father sees his son and runs to him. Fathers in the ancient world would never have behaved in such an undignified manner. At the very least, they would have waited until the errant son had come home and said what he had to say. The son knows he can’t expect to be welcomed back as a son, but the father seeing his son returning doesn’t wait until he arrives. More than that, it is the father who does what is necessary to reconcile and restore his son to himself. It is the father who puts the robe over the son’s body, a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. It is the father who orders the killing of the fatted calf, and it is the father who orders the celebrations to begin.

We have no right to expect to expect God’s forgiveness and we cannot presume on the kindness of God. That’s what amazing about it! When we are at our moment of deepest despair, when we are in no position to hope, it is then we experience the amazing grace of God that not only forgives but reconciles and restores us in Christ.

The father describes his son as having been lost and dead but is now found and alive. It is in Christ that the lost are found and the dead are given life. It is in Christ that we are reconciled to God and restored to a relationship with him. It is in Christ that we come home. St Paul writes:

‘All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ …’ (1 Corinthians 5:18)

4. Rejoicing

And so, we get to the conclusion of the parable and to Jesus’ reason for telling it. The story has been building up to the fourth step in the process of salvation. The first three steps describe how we get home to God. The fourth step describes what happens once we are home and what the reaction should be of those already home to someone who has joined us in the house.

The parable asks how we should respond to someone who has realized their plight, repented of their sin, and been reconciled to God. Put like that it seems obvious. If God is happy, who are we to be unhappy. Sadly, it doesn’t always work like this. We can’t help ourselves. There are some repentant sinners we refuse to accept.

Perhaps it’s because we have never really felt ourselves to be sinners, certainly not a sinner in the way some are sinners. Perhaps we have been one of those who all their life have tried to do the right thing, to live a good life, help others, and avoid giving offence. What is it all for if someone can do what they like and get away with it? The elder son isn’t exaggerating when he talks of how well he has behaved and how loyal to his father he has been, and the father doesn’t contradict him. The elder son has, however, missed the point.

This isn’t about which of the sons has done what is right and which has done what is wrong, but what the right way to respond is when someone realizes they are in the wrong. We can accept that there is forgiveness for some sins, but we find it hard to believe that there is forgiveness for all sins. Jesus offered forgiveness to all who repented, whatever their sin. Jesus is telling the Pharisees and those like them that there is only way to respond when a sinner repents and that is the way the father himself responds. We should rejoice when the sinner comes home.

God likes sinners to repent and return to him. It is a cause for rejoicing, but more than that, God not only want us to join in the rejoicing, but to do what we can to welcome the sinner home and to join in the celebration.

We will only do this when we are willing, like the father was, to see that those who were lost and dead are now, through the forgiveness and mercy of God, found and alive. Knowing his son was lost gave the father no satisfaction and seeing the mistakes and wrong choices people make should give us no satisfaction. It should, however, give us an incentive to reach out to people with the love of God and to do so as those who have themselves made the same mistakes and wrong choices, and to offer them the hope of being found, as we have been found, by the God who gives life in Christ.

Seeing that many are lost and without life and hope in our world should also give us in the Church, and as a Church, a sense of priority.

Jesus tells two other parables before this one. In the first, a shepherd leaves 99 sheep to go in search of one that is lost. In the second, a woman stops everything she is doing to search for her lost coin. Seeing the lost around us, we need the same sense of urgency and determination. St Paul writes that God has given us the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18). We, like Jesus, are to ‘seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:10). But we will only want to do this if we think they are lost and need saving, and we will only be able to do this if we have been found and saved ourselves.

The message to us today is that God wants us to be reconciled to himself and to come home to a relationship with him in Christ.

May we find that relationship for ourselves and rejoice with him when others find it too.


Thursday, March 24, 2022

The Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary

Reading: Luke 1:26-38

Today is when we celebrate the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary that God had chosen her to be the mother of his Son. As I have said in sermons for the feasts of Our Lady over the past couple of years (which are still available on YouTube!), many believers have issues with celebrating the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in our salvation. Today will pass in many of our churches without so much as a mention of the Annunciation. All generations will call Our Lady blessed, but not, sadly, all our churches.

In the Church of England, this coming Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, is also known as ‘Mothering Sunday’. In England, where the Church of England is still the established church, in name at least, it is also Mother’s Day. Mothering Sunday, however, while acknowledging the thanks we owe to our earthly mothers, celebrates ‘mothering’ more broadly, including both that of our physical and of our spiritual mothers, and, especially, that of our mother church.

St John, in his Gospel, describes Jesus’ care for his own mother, even as he is dying on the Cross. St John writes:

‘When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.’ (John 19:26-27)

It is particularly appropriate, then, that this year the Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary is very near to Mothering Sunday. The Annunciation, while being uniquely about God’s choice of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of his Son, is also about God’s affirmation of the gift of mothering. For some, however, ‘mothering’ is something of an unwanted gift that they don’t know what to do with.

One of the things that you frequently hear repeated in our churches at the moment is that the Church is a ‘patriarchal institution’. I use the word ‘repeated’ advisedly because many of those who say this of the Church are simply repeating a phrase they have heard without stopping to think about what it means. It has now been repeated so often that it is just assumed to be self-evidently true without there being any need for further justification and explanation. If an explanation is attempted, it normally takes the form of a recitation of examples of the terrible things that it is believed that women have suffered in the Church and because of the Church as a result of male power and privilege.

There is no question that women have suffered both in the Church and because of the Church. However, simply listing examples of the harm women have suffered as a result of the abuse of male power and then blaming it on ‘patriarchy’ is a bit like listing all the harm caused to people by the abuse of drugs, and then blaming it on medical science. Those who argue like this are just being intellectually and spiritually lazy.

I have no wish to defend male power and privilege, indeed, I think the abuse of power and privilege by men has done great damage not only to women but to the Church as a whole and that it still is doing great damage. Women are doing the Church a great service by calling it out.

What many male and female critics of the patriarchy seem to assume, however, is that for women to find freedom from male oppression and to achieve equality with men, women must compete with them. It seems reasonable to question why, for women to be set free from the abuse caused by the misuse of power and privilege by men, women must themselves become part of the patriarchy or, at least, should pursue the advantages and opportunities that historically patriarchy is believed to give. Paradoxically, for women to find freedom from oppression by men, it is simply taken for granted that women must become more like them, taking on roles traditionally reserved for men and receiving the same rewards for playing them.

It should be obvious to anyone that someone doing the same work should get the same pay and that this still does not happen with women being constantly discriminated against in the workplace is just wrong. Where the problem occurs for women who want to do the same work as men, however, is that women are not the same as men.

The fact is that biologically women and men are ‘sexually asymmetrical’. Erika Bachiochi, whose book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision I have recommended recently on our Church Facebook page has written:

‘Women and men are biologically and reproductively dissimilar. This sexual distinctiveness gives rise to a “sexual asymmetry”—the fundamental reality that the potential consequences of sexual intercourse are far more immediate and serious for women than for men.’ (Christian bioethics: Non-Ecumenical Studies in Medical Morality, Volume 19, Issue 2, August 2013, Pages 150–171)

To put it plainly: it is women who have babies.

Rather than a woman’s child-bearing potential being viewed positively, however, it is more often seen as a major disadvantage. For the purposes of this sermon, I did a simple search of recent articles in the Economist, which is hardly a radical newspaper of either the left or the right. The articles that appeared in the search had headlines containing such words as ‘penalty, perils, and pains’. A major issue for those writing the articles was the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’, which is defined as:

‘… the amount by which women’s earnings fall compared with their earnings a year before giving birth.’ (Economist, May 31, 2019)

Not only do women get paid less after giving birth, many women deliberately choose to take work that pays less money in order to spend more time with their children. That this is something that women would voluntarily choose to do horrifies the writers and, they argue, something should be done about it. It simply isn’t fair and not fair apparently whether it’s a woman’s own choice or not. That women should make such a choice is again blamed on the power of patriarchy to condition and influence women’s thinking and choices. It never occurs to those arguing like this that what they are saying may be more than a little patronizing towards the women making these choices.

I will leave the economics to the Economist and economists, and I will save the philosophical and theological discussion of patriarchy for another time and another place. I would, however, like to protest against the idea that motherhood should be seen purely as a problem causing women penalty, perils, and pains.

It is precisely this sort of thinking that has led many women to decide not to have a baby when they are young and to wait until they are older before trying, only to find when they are older that it is then much harder to conceive. Women are delaying giving birth when they are young because, when they are young, they are constantly being warned of the ‘motherhood penalty’ they will pay if they do, often only to suffer later another type of penalty as a consequence.

I realize that I am already taking a big risk as a man in talking about this, but there is a point to my risk-taking: the suspicion with which motherhood is viewed has also affected us for the worse in the Church, so that we are infected with the same virus of suspicion, when it comes to mothering, that exists in society as a whole, and it is precisely for this reason that we need the help and example of our spiritual mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

When God planned to enter our existence to save us, he determined to do so by being born of a woman as one of us. The woman he chose was a young Jewish woman. When the Angel Gabriel announced to her that she was to conceive and give birth to God’s Son, the Blessed Virgin Mary saw it as the honour it was. She not only believed it, she accepted it and made it her choice. Her words may be well-known, but they are still moving and powerful. She says to the Angel:

‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38)

But in God’s choice of her and her choice to obey not only is Mary blessed and honoured, but mothering and motherhood is also affirmed and sanctified. When God created men and women in his own image, God determined that it was through childbirth that the human race would continue and thrive. After God has created men and women, his first commandment to them is:

‘Be fruitful and multiply …’ (Genesis 1:28)

In the incarnation, however, God has lifted mothering to a new level by choosing a mother for himself. Not for nothing is the Blessed Virgin Mary called theotokos, God-bearer, the Mother of God.

This is not for moment to justify limiting women’s choices, paying them less, holding them back in their careers, keeping them out of the boardroom and corridors of power in our world, or any of the discriminations still suffered by women. It is to say that motherhood and mothering for all its penalty, perils, and pains is a gift of God to both women and men.

Regrettably, for some in the Church, issues of gender still come down to the question of whether women can be ordained and take up leadership positions in the Church. We need to see that discussions about gender have now moved way beyond arguments over which roles in the Church should be open to women. The issue of gender has become much broader and now concerns the nature of human identity itself.

Others in the Church, in their attempt to keep up with secular society, and at times to get ahead of it, are arguing, not only for a particular understanding of gender as it relates to us as humans, but also as it relates to God. This leads them to demand, for example, a radical revision of how we think about God and of the language we use especially in worship. It is now a very real question as to whether the God who is worshipped in many churches has any more than a passing resemblance to the God of the Bible and church tradition.

The choice we find ourselves offered in the Church is, on the one hand, from those who argue for a very limited and limiting role for women and, on the other, from those who want us to adopt a version of secular feminism. In neither of the choices on offer is mothering valued or given the honour it deserves.

In previous sermons, I have argued that the Blessed Virgin Mary offers an alternative paradigm for both men and women. It is one that recognizes the equality and dignity of both men and women as made in the image of God, while respecting their sexual asymmetry and its consequences.

One of the encouragements to me at the moment is that there are several outstanding women in the Church who are developing and arguing for such a paradigm. They are showing how we can break free from the sterile arguments between so-called traditionalists and progressives and from the constraints and limitations both seek to place on women. In the process, they are advocating for an understanding of gender and identity that goes beyond name calling and a limited fixation on ecclesiastical positions. They describe how both women and men can fulfil their calling as sons and daughters of God. It is perhaps no coincidence that the women I am referring to come from within a tradition that honours and venerates the Blessed Virgin Mary.

After the angel’s announcement to her, the Blessed Virgin Mary celebrates as a woman both the great things God has done for her and that God is the One who ‘has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts’ and ‘brought down the powerful from their seats’. In just a few short sentences, the Blessed Virgin Mary challenges the powerful and privileged while affirming both her identity as a woman and the value of motherhood.

As believers, we need to stop seeing motherhood as a disability to be overcome, and instead to see it as a calling to be valued and affirmed. This doesn’t mean going back to seeing a woman’s place as being in the home, unless, that is, the woman herself sees it as being there. It does mean that the Church should have the courage to affirm the dignity and worth of women as women and that includes a woman’s capacity to give birth and to be a mother.

And so today, we honour the Blessed Virgin Mary as the mother of our Lord and thank God for her, but we also seek to listen to her and learn from her.

There is much more that needs to be said, but the least the Blessed Virgin Mary would say to women who are mothers or who are contemplating becoming one is to pursue whatever career you feel God is calling you to, but not to be afraid also to value motherhood and to see it as integral part of God’s calling.

The Blessed Virgin Mary would remind men that God lifts up the lowly but brings down the powerful. It is in service that men are to fulfil their own calling. Men need to stop seeing motherhood as a handicap that holds women back and makes them less valuable either in the home or in workplace and to see instead the gift of motherhood as the God-given way for us to share in the creative power and activity of God.

Above all today, the Blessed Virgin Mary would ask us all, both women and men, to follow her example of obedience and to say together with her:

‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38)

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.


Saturday, March 19, 2022

The Third Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent.

The Third Sunday of Lent 2022

Reading: Luke 13:1-9

Our Gospel reading from the beginning of chapter 13 of St Luke’s Gospel is the conclusion to teaching Jesus has been giving since the beginning of chapter 12. Immediately before this section of the Gospel in chapter 11, Jesus is severely critical of the Pharisees. In chapter 12, St Luke begins this section of the Gospel by describing how a huge crowd has gathered to see and hear Jesus.

Jesus has become something of a celebrity and people trample over one another to get to see him. Jesus, however, has something he wants to say first to his disciples. Jesus links what he wants to say to his disciples to what he has been saying previously about the Pharisees. He begins by warning his disciples of the ‘yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy’ (Luke 12:1). Today, he may have told them to beware of the virus of the Pharisees, that is their hypocrisy! The idea is of something that spreads and affects the whole in the process. Jesus sees the Pharisees’ hypocrisy as being like that.

Jesus has condemned the Pharisees’ hypocrisy in stark terms, describing them as being one thing on the outside and another altogether on the inside. They love outward show and want people to look up to them and show them respect (Luke 11:39-44). One day, however, what they are really like will be exposed. Jesus tells his disciples:

‘Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.’ (Luke 12:2-3)

This statement about God’s future judgement, which will affect everyone and not just the Pharisees, provides the theme for Jesus’ teaching that follows in chapter 12 and continues in our Gospel reading.

Having introduced the theme of judgement, Jesus warns his disciples that they should not fear those who can harm them physically, rather they should fear him who can destroy them completely in hell! They are to be fearless in their witness to him knowing that God will watch over them and help them (Luke 12:4-12).

Someone in the crowd asks Jesus to act as the judge now and to settle a family dispute they have over inheritance. Jesus replies that this is not why he has come (Luke 12:13-14). Jesus warns against the materialism that leads to these sorts of disputes by telling a parable about a rich man. In the parable, the rich man thinks that because he is so well off materially, he need have no concerns and can get on with enjoying himself (Luke 12:15-21). Jesus relates how the man in the story will die at the very moment he thinks he has nothing to worry about. What good his riches then?

Jesus tells his disciples that they should learn from this and not worry about the physical things of life such as food and clothing. The disciples are to trust God for them and focus instead on God’s Kingdom (Luke 12:22-34). Jesus goes on to tell a parable about slaves waiting for their master’s return. The parable describes how good slaves will always be prepared for when their master comes. Likewise, the disciples’ main concern should be that they are ready for when the Son of Man comes (Luke 12:35-40).

At times in his teaching, Jesus is speaking to everyone, and at other times just to the disciples. Peter is finding it hard to keep up! So, he asks Jesus whether this parable about slaves being ready for the master’s return is just for the disciples or for the crowds in general (Luke 12:41). Jesus answers, as he often does, with another parable. At first, it isn’t immediately obvious how this parable answers Peter’s question.

In the parable (Luke 12:42-48), Jesus describes a slave who is in charge of his master’s household when the master is away. The slave will be rewarded if the master returns and finds him working. If, however, the slave takes advantage of his master being away to indulge himself and mistreat the slaves under him, then he will be severely punished when the master returns unexpectedly and catches him not doing what was expected of him. Jesus says that the slave who knew what his master wanted and did not do it will receive a greater punishment than the one who, although doing wrong, acted in ignorance of his master’s wishes. Much, says Jesus, will be required of those to whom much is given.

Jesus is saying in answer to Peter’s question that the disciples have been given a privileged position by Jesus, but this carries with it greater responsibility. The disciples will be held to account if they don’t live up to what Jesus expects of them. Those who are given positions of authority over God’s people will be subject to a more searching judgement when Jesus returns.

Jesus then tells them he has come to ‘bring fire to the earth’ (Luke 12:49). Jesus knows that suffering lies ahead for him and refers to it metaphorically as a baptism he must undergo. It is, he says, causing him a great deal of stress waiting for it to be completed. Jesus asks them whether they think he has come to bring peace to the earth? No, he says, he has come to bring division. Families will be divided because of him (Luke 12:49-53).

Jesus says to the crowds that they know how to interpret the signs that indicate what the weather is going to be. Why can’t they see the significance of the present time (Luke 12:54-56)? Don’t they realize the seriousness of it? Jesus asks them:

‘You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’ (Luke 12:56)

Following Jesus’ teaching has so far been reasonably straightforward, even if, like Peter, we have some points needing further clarification!

Jesus has announced that judgement is coming. His disciples, then, are to fear God and not what people may do to them. Their responsibility is to witness to Jesus. They need to get their priorities sorted out. Rather than worrying about how much material wealth they have now, they should worry about what they are going to say to God when he calls them before him. They are not to worry about their physical needs, God will take care of them. They must seek God’s Kingdom and make sure they are ready for it when it comes, for it will come unexpectedly. Much is expected of those to whom much has been given. Jesus has come to bring the fire of judgement, and his coming will bring division, even between those who are closely related. People ought to realize how critical the present moment is and what danger they are in, and, having realized it, they need to act accordingly.

Jesus then tells yet another parable (Luke 12:57-59). If, Jesus says to them, they are accused by someone and they are being taken to court, it is better for them to do what they can to settle the case before it comes before the judge. If it comes before the judge, they may find themselves locked up in prison and unable to get out. Jesus is urging them to get right with God now, while there is still time.

St Luke writes that at that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. We don’t have any reference to this incident outside the Gospels, but we do know from the Jewish historian, Josephus (c AD 37-100), that Pilate (AD 26-37) was more than capable of such atrocities.

Jesus has been talking about how serious the current time is and warning of the terrible judgement that is going to come upon people. The reason those who are present tell Jesus about the Galileans who have suffered such a horrible death is that they see it as an example of God’s judgement on people who were sinners. Jesus challenges them. Jesus asks them whether they think that these Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans? Clearly, they do; that’s why they told Jesus about them. Jesus is blunt:

‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’ (Luke 13:3)

There is always a tendency for us to see other people’s misfortune as being their own fault, even if we wouldn’t always speak out our thoughts. Jesus asks them whether they also think that the 18 people who were killed in a disaster in Jerusalem, when the Tower of Siloam fell on them, were worse offenders than others who were living in Jerusalem at the time? Probably they did! Again, Jesus tells them:

‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ (Luke 13:5)

Sermons on our Gospel reading will use Jesus’ words to argue that we shouldn’t see the bad things that happen to people as the judgement of God on sinners. This may be what we want Jesus’ words to mean, but it isn’t what Jesus actually says. Jesus doesn’t say that the Galileans and the Jerusalemites who were killed weren’t sinners, but that they were not more sinful than anyone else. Jesus uses what happened to the Galileans and Jerusalemites as an illustration of what will happen to anyone who does not repent. The point Jesus is making is that this is what is coming to everyone who does not repent.

Jesus says twice for emphasis that unless his hearers repent, they will perish. This shouldn’t provide us with any sense of satisfaction but should be a stark warning to us. Jesus’ message is that what the Galileans and Jerusalemites suffered, all are in danger of suffering. Jesus reinforces this message by telling a parable about a fig tree in a vineyard.

The images of a fig tree and a vineyard and are important and well-known ones in the Hebrew Scriptures. The fig tree is the only species of tree mentioned by name in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:7). The vineyard was a symbol for Israel (Psalm 80:8; Isaiah 51:1-7; Jeremiah 2:21). The fig tree was used as a symbol for Judah or Jerusalem (Jeremiah 8:13; 24:1-10; Micah 7:1; Hosea 9:10). The presence of vines and fig trees in the Promised Land were signs of its abundance and fertility (Deuteronomy 8:6-7). Being able to sit under vines and fig trees represented prosperity and peace (1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4). Conversely, the destruction of vines and fig trees represented judgement (Joel 1:6-7; Amos 4:9).

Jesus is thus drawing on familiar imagery in his parable. The fig tree, says Jesus, has produced no fruit for the past three years. The owner, therefore, orders it to be cut down. It is wasting valuable space. The gardener, however, asks the owner to give it another year. He will do what he can during this time to encourage the tree to produce fruit, if it doesn’t, then it can be cut down. Theophilus would immediately remember the words of John the Baptist. St Luke writes that John says to the crowds that come to be baptized by him:

‘Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ (Luke 3:9)

Jesus’ message is clear: God is giving his people every opportunity to repent, but if they don’t, there will be no escape. God’s judgement will come upon them.

Despite the clarity of what Jesus says about judgement in his teaching, we are increasingly unwilling in the Church to acknowledge that Jesus said anything of the sort. This despite the theme of judgement being an integral and important part of Jesus’ teaching. We have seen how it runs through everything Jesus says in chapter 12 and in our Gospel reading this week.

To repeat: the theme of judgement is there in Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees; in his warning to fear God who can cast us into hell; in his story of the self-satisfied rich man who is called to give an account of his life; in the story of the slaves who are blessed because they are ready for their master’s return; and in the story of those who are punished because they are not.

It is hard to see how much clearer Jesus could be. He says plainly he has come to bring fire to the earth. He criticizes his hearers for not being able to see how significant is the time in which they live. He challenges them directly to face the reality of the prospect of judgement and, if all this is not enough, he says twice in our reading that unless we each repent, we will all perish.

Nor is the theme of judgement confined to this section of the Gospel or to a few isolated sayings. It is a theme that runs through the whole of Jesus’ teaching, and it is an essential part of it. Jesus frequently talks about God’s judgement in explicit and even graphic terms. All of which makes it all the more incredible that people refuse to see the theme of judgement in Jesus’ teaching or deny that it is there, or else pretend that if it is, it is peripheral to it and can be safely ignored.

The overwhelming picture that people in our churches have of Jesus today is of the inclusive and welcoming Jesus who accepts everyone. It would be far better if we were just honest about what Jesus said and did and then rejected him, but instead we cling to the picture we want to have of him, that is, Jesus as we would like him to be, and resolutely refuse to face the truth about Jesus and his message. One day, however, we will have to, and we are going to be in for some nasty surprises. Jesus says:

‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.’ (Luke 9:26)

To our great shame, we are ashamed of Jesus’ words, very ashamed. This is why we ignore them or simply deny that he ever said them.

Quite frankly, I don’t know how to put it any more plainly and clearly. Jesus, as he is presented in many churches, simply did not and does not exist. It is a Jesus who is a figment of our imagination, the result of mere wishful thinking, and simply the projection of our own prejudices and beliefs.

We can and should discuss what Jesus means when he talks of judgement. It is completely legitimate to ask what form the judgement will take. It is perfectly reasonable to ask questions about how what Jesus says about judgement relates to other aspects of his teaching. But it is dishonest and deceitful to talk as if Jesus never spoke of judgement or to suggest that if he did it was unimportant.

If we filter out, ignore, or dismiss something which is central to someone’s teaching, work, and self-understanding, it is hard to see how we can be said to be taking them seriously or how we can claim to believe in them and be their follower. If, then, you listen to a talk, sermon, or presentation on Jesus and his teaching that doesn’t mention what he believed and taught about judgement, what you are hearing is not about Jesus as he appears in the Gospels, but about a Jesus that has been manufactured to suit our liking, and a Jesus that has been manufactured cannot save us no matter how appealing we may find him to be.

The theme of judgement in the teaching of Jesus is so important precisely because it was to save us from the consequences of that judgement that Jesus came. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews asks:

‘… how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?’ (Hebrews 2:3)

One of the reasons that we neglect this salvation is, of course, that we don’t think we need saving. We may need forgiving from time to time; we certainly need people to accept us and encourage us; and we want people to affirm and support us in the pursuit of our goals. Talk of ‘saving’, however, implies that there is something wrong with us and that we are not up to coping with life by ourselves. It is an implication we refuse to accept.

Jesus warns his disciples:

‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.’ (Luke 12:1)

Hypocrisy is about pretence. It is about wanting to be seen one way outwardly while what we are inwardly is very different. It is about projecting an image of ourselves that doesn’t match the reality of what we are like. Hypocrisy is one the major sins of our age.

Social media, for example, encourages and thrives on hypocrisy. Social media is where we put on a show for the camera and edit pictures to make us look more like we want to appear. It is where we post things that will get us liked. It is not, however, just on social media, but in everything we do that we feel the pressure to work on our image. The society we live in leaves us in no doubt as to what that image should be. It should be an image of someone who believes in themself, who is capable and confident, and who seeks to realize their ambitions and follow their dreams wherever they may lead.

The problem is that the happy-smiley-selfie we post on Instagram is not how we are feeling inside. We can photoshop the image, but we can’t change the reality. And that self-confident person we claim to be on our CV or in our online bio is not the person we actually are. When it comes to hypocrisy, we make the Pharisees look like amateurs.

Jesus challenges the crowds:

‘And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?’ (Luke 12:57)

Jesus’ teaching on judgement is not meant simply to frighten us, and taking the judgement of God seriously is not about living in an uncertain fear of what will happen in the future. Instead, the prospect of appearing before God for judgement should cause us to face up now to who we are, what we are like, and how we live our lives.

The realization that we are under the judgement of God radically changes how we think of ourselves in the present. Knowing that there will be a day when the truth about who we are and what we are like will be revealed for all to see, in the way Jesus describes, encourages us be honest about ourselves. Knowing that we will be required to appear before him and give an account of our lives leads us to reassess our priorities and values in life and to rethink what it is that really matters and is important. Knowing that one day we will get to hear what God thinks of us makes the opinions of people and the world around us seem somewhat less important than we are constantly tempted to think they are.

The criticism is often made that focusing on the judgement of God gives rise to fear, and fear, it is said, is not a good reason to believe in God. I am not, however, personally averse to fearing God or to encouraging such a fear in others. Jesus, after all, specifically tells us that we should fear God - and for good reason (Luke 12:5). Our fear of God, however, should not be a fear that paralyzes us, but a fear that, seeing our own weakness and wretchedness, compels us to throw ourselves on the love and mercy of God. It is as we see ourselves as God sees us, and as we tremble with fear and repent in shame at the sight, that we experience the love of God that casts out fear. It is by fearing God that we lose all fear.

If we are willing to believe Jesus and take his teaching seriously, what then shall we do? In the conclusion to the story about the slaves who are blessed because the master finds them alert when he comes, Jesus says:

‘You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’ (Luke 12:40)

Writing to believers in Corinth, who are already experiencing the judgement of God because of their wrong behaviour, St Paul tells them:

‘But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged.’ (1 Corinthians 11:31)

Lent traditionally is a time for self-examination. The saints constantly encourage us to engage in self-examination. This is not about a morbid introspection or self-obsession, but about being real and honest before God. It is about having the courage to let the light of God shine into our lives and reveal those things we hide, sometimes even from ourselves, but which are known and seen by God. This would be an overwhelming and terrifying experience, far beyond our ability to cope with, were it not for the fact that the God who knows us, loves us. Loves us not in some vague, sentimental way, but in a way that transforms us and conforms us to the image of his Son. St Paul writes:

‘… God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’ (Romans 5:5)

It is God himself through his Spirit who is at work in us to make us like his Son. This is the image we ought to be most concerned with and becoming like Jesus should be our over-riding concern. St Paul writes to the Philippian believers:

‘… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ (Philippians 2:12-13)

The fear of God and the love of God belong together.

May we, as we seek to follow Christ, know and experience both.


Saturday, March 12, 2022

The Second Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent.

The Second Sunday of Lent

Reading: Luke 13:31-35

The first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the ‘synoptic Gospels’, so-called because they have a similar view of the story of Jesus and have much material in common, often in the same order. (The word ‘synoptic’ itself comes from a Latin word, which means ‘seen together’.) The way these three Gospels view and present the life of our Lord is different to how our Lord’s ministry is viewed and presented in St John’s Gospel.

Although the synoptic Gospels clearly have much in common with each other and share much of their content, they, nevertheless, each have their own way of using this shared material and presenting the story of Jesus. Each Gospel writer has their own special emphases and each highlight different aspects of our Lord’s life and message.

Scholars spend a great deal of time examining and analyzing the relationship between these three Gospels and speculating on both their use of each other and of other possible sources. There is a real temptation for scholars to become more interested in the sources of the Gospels and the relationship between them than in the text of the Gospels themselves.

In the world of scholarship, PhDs have to be gained and academic careers furthered, and the so-called ‘synoptic problem’, that is, the question of what the relationship between the first three Gospels actually is, provides fertile ground for academic research. Apart from being an intriguing area of study, it is an area of research that has an added advantage for scholars. At the end of the day, there is so much that we simply do not know and never can know, so scholars can speculate without much limit on it. One scholar has written of how he was a member of a professional group of scholars who had been studying the synoptic problem together for 12 years during which time they had not been able to agree on a single issue!

This doesn’t mean there is nothing to be gained from such study, just that we need to be aware of its limitations. Where comparisons of the three Gospels can be helpful is in illustrating the different emphases of each Gospel writer. That each Gospel writer has different way of presenting the story of Jesus even when using shared material shouldn’t surprise or bother us. When describing someone this is what we all do all the time. We inevitably focus on those aspects of a person’s life that most interest, attract, or concern us. It is by bringing the different accounts of a person together that we get a fuller picture of the person concerned.

One of St Luke’s major emphases in his Gospel is on Jerusalem and on Jesus’ relationship with it. It is this relationship that is very much in view in our Gospel reading this week.

In St John’s Gospel, much of Jesus’ ministry takes place in Jerusalem. In the synoptic Gospels, the focus is on Galilee and only at the end of Jesus’ ministry do they describe events in Jerusalem itself. St Luke, while sharing the synoptic focus on Galilee, manages by a careful structuring of his material to stress the importance and centrality of Jerusalem in the plan and purposes of God and, indeed, specifically for Jesus himself.

St Luke begins his Gospel in Jerusalem with the announcement by the angel Gabriel in the Temple in Jerusalem concerning the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah, who is himself a priest in the Temple (Luke 1:5-25). St Luke ends his Gospel with the disciples in the Temple in Jerusalem after Jesus has told them, before he ascends to heaven, that they must wait in Jerusalem for the promise of his Father (Luke 24:44-53).

St Luke describes how Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the ‘city of David’, the great King of Israel from whom Jesus is descended ‘according to the flesh’ (Romans 1:3). Bethlehem is just 6 miles outside of Jerusalem, which is itself also the ‘city of David’, having been captured and made the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah by David. Jesus is ‘presented’ in the Temple by his parents when just a few weeks old (Luke 2:22-38). St Luke alone records an incident from Jesus’ childhood that takes place in the Temple when Jesus is 12 years old (Luke 2:41-52). For St Luke, the climax of Jesus’ testing by the Devil takes place not in the wilderness, but on the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 4:1-13).

We have seen how at Jesus’ transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appear to talk with Jesus, their discussion concerns the exodus which Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:28-36)). This is an event that marks a turning point in the Gospel. After the transfiguration, St Luke begins to give an account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem for this ‘exodus’. Jesus’ journey begins at chapter 9 verse 51 and will continue to chapter 19 verse 27, thus taking up a great deal of the Gospel. It is a unique and major feature of St Luke’s Gospel and, throughout his account of the journey, St Luke will stress how important it is that Jesus is going up to Jerusalem to die (Luke (9:51, 53; 13:22, 33; 17:11, 18:31; 19:11). It has to be in Jerusalem that Jesus is killed.

As Jesus arrives at Jerusalem and his journey comes to an end, Jesus weeps over the city (Luke 19:41-44). In St John’s Gospel, Jesus weeps over the death of Lazarus his friend; in St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus weeps over the death and destruction that is coming to Jerusalem. This is a recurring theme on our Lord’s journey to Jerusalem and it is the theme of our Gospel reading this week.

In our reading, Jesus is making his way through the villages of Galilee on his way to Jerusalem, teaching as he does so (Luke 13:22). He has just spoken of how many of those who expect to enter the Kingdom of God when it comes will be excluded, whereas many of those from afar, who were not expected to get in, will be included. At this very moment, some Pharisees come and warn Jesus that Herod is after him to kill him. Jesus tells them to tell Herod that he is casting out demons and healing people but must soon be on his way. Herod may want to kill Jesus, but it is in Jerusalem, Jesus says, that he must die, for it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem. Jesus then goes on to express his anguish over Jerusalem. I will return to this, but first I want to ask why the Pharisees warn him? We think of the Pharisees as wanting to get rid of Jesus, so isn’t Herod’s desire to kill him something you would expect them to co-operate with?

The Pharisees have been very critical of Jesus and he of them. St Luke has told us that they have become very hostile towards Jesus. St Luke writes:

‘… the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile toward him and to cross-examine him about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.’ (Luke 11:53)

Jesus has also warned his disciples about the Pharisees. He tells them to ‘beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy’ (Luke 12:1). It doesn’t sound like there is any love lost between Jesus and the Pharisees. So why now the Pharisees’ apparent concern for Jesus’ safety? Some commentators don’t think that they are warning Jesus out of any concern for him, but because they are wanting to scare Jesus and intimidate him. It’s not easy for us to judge their motives, as St Luke doesn’t give us any indication at this point as to what they are. It is, however, worth remembering when it comes to Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees that the picture isn’t a black and white one. The very next passage, for example, begins:

‘On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.’ (Luke 14:1)

This leader of the Pharisees isn’t the first Pharisee to invite Jesus to dinner. If the Pharisees have completely given up on Jesus, why invite him for meals? And yet there is clearly suspicion of Jesus, even at the meal. The probability is that the Pharisees were sympathetic to much that Jesus said and did, but anything but sympathetic to other aspects of his ministry. And even when sympathetic, some Pharisees were more sympathetic than others.

Those who were more sympathetic probably included some who later went on to join the Church (Acts 15:5). St Luke tells us that while there were Pharisees who, like St Paul originally, hated the Church, others joined it. Ironically, St Paul, despite his initial opposition to the Church, was to change sides and become an enthusiastic advocate for the Church. This even resulted in St Paul being persecuted by the Pharisees who had joined the Church. Instead, now of St Paul persecuting the Pharisees who had joined the Church, they now persecuted him for being over-zealous as a believer! In other words, it is all much more complicated than the Pharisees simply being for or against Jesus.

It was after all a Pharisee, Nicodemus, who with another member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, took Jesus’ body and buried it when everyone else had abandoned him (John 19:38-42).

A problem we also have in the Church is that for many years the Church operated with a faulty understanding of Judaism, in general, and of the Pharisees, in particular. This has changed in more recent years, but the old understanding still lingers. The old understanding was largely due to a reading back into the Gospels of disputes between Protestants and Catholics at the time of the European Reformation in the 16th century. The Jews were seen as being guilty of the same sort of sins that the Protestants accused the Catholics of being guilty of.

The Protestants saw themselves as believing in grace in the same way Jesus and St Paul believed in grace. The Protestants thought Judaism and the religion of the Pharisees wasn’t a religion of grace in the same way as they were convinced that Catholicism wasn’t a religion of grace. Again, it was all much more complicated than that. Sadly, by giving the Jews at the time of Jesus such a bad name, the Protestant reformation fed into the antisemitism that was already rife in Europe with disastrous consequences, not least in Germany.

Pendulums swing from side to side and there are now those who won’t have a word said against the Pharisees. The truth is that at times Jesus did severely criticize the Pharisees. It is historically dishonest to pretend that he didn’t. We just need to be careful to see what it was that Jesus actually criticized the Pharisees for and not make up our own charges against them.

Whatever the motive of these Pharisees in our reading in warning Jesus, Herod is not going to be allowed to kill Jesus in the way he killed John the Baptist. Jesus must die in Jerusalem. It is impossible, Jesus says, for a prophet to be killed anywhere else.

Jesus has a deep and intense emotional and spiritual relationship with Jerusalem that we will explore as we journey with Jesus to the Holy City. On the one hand, Jesus condemns Jerusalem for killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to it and he will pronounce God’s coming judgement on it. On the other hand, Jesus expresses his pain and anguish at Jerusalem’s refusal to receive him. Jesus relates how he has often desired to gather Jerusalem’s children together ‘as a hen gathers her brood under her wings’, but Jerusalem has been unwilling. Incidentally, this comment by Jesus suggests that St Luke knew of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem, which is described by St John in his Gospel.

Jesus then anticipates the coming judgement on Jerusalem when he says that the city will not see him until the time comes when it is willing to welcome him as the one sent by God. Jesus will enter Jerusalem at the end of this journey and his disciples will celebrate and announce his arrival using these very words of welcome. The Pharisees in the crowd, however, will ask Jesus to tell his disciples to stop. Jesus as he gets near the city will weep over it at the judgement that must come upon it for not recognising its visitation from God.

In Jesus words in our Gospel reading, however, there is a glimmer of hope. Jesus knows Jerusalem will not welcome him now and will be judged because of it, but there will come a time when they will speak the words of welcome that they refuse to speak when Jesus enters the city on Palm Sunday.

In asking what this all says to us today, I want to repeat some things I have said previously and to apologize in advance for those who have heard me say them before.

The Church for most of its history has been virulently antisemitic. If you don’t believe me, I invite you to spend some time on the Yad Vashem website. Yad Vashem is the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. As most people will know, the holocaust saw nations with a Christian heritage conspiring to eradicate systematically the Jews from Europe. And please don’t tell me it was just a few mad Nazis who were responsible for the genocide. It took the complicity of many ordinary Christian people to make it happen and to allow it to continue to happen. The holocaust wasn’t a one off mad period in the history of the Church, but just one more outburst of something that had been present in the Church for hundreds of years - and still is.

Theoretically, of course, we don’t approve of antisemitism nowadays, although it is interesting that church leaders who are anxious to be seen publicly to repent of racism are not so quick or so public in repenting of antisemitism. What church leaders are quick to do is to condemn the state of Israel and to side with the Palestinians against it. Sadly, condemnation of the state of Israel is often just an acceptable way of expressing antisemitism in the present.

Mention the state of Israel, however, and it won’t be very long before you find yourself in trouble. The modern state of Israel itself came back into being, for the first time in centuries, in 1948. Its re-creation, however, was, and is, extremely controversial. We have seen just how controversial in the conflicts between Israel and the terrorist group, Hamas.

A distinction is often made when discussing these matters between Judaism and Israel. Judaism and Israel, we are told, are not synonymous. While this may be a fair comment, and one that many Jews themselves would agree with, it is, nevertheless, impossible to separate the two.

According to estimates by Professor Sergio Della Pergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the world Jewish population is approximately 15.2 million. In other words, not very many. Very much a minority, in fact. Of this 15.2 million, 6,930,000, 45.3% (nearly half), live in Israel itself. 6,000,000 Jewish people live in the United States with the rest living in various other parts of the world. In 1950, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, passed a law giving every Jew the right to return and settle in Israel. It is, in other words, impossible to divide the Jewish people from the land of Israel. This is not meant to be a controversial statement, but simply a political statement of fact.

The attitude of Christians in all this is interesting. Many American evangelicals are devoutly pro-Israel. I think it is fair to say that most Anglicans are not. For some believers, the Bible teaches that the Messiah will one day reign over his Kingdom on earth from Jerusalem. For others, God’s kingdom has got nothing more to do with Jerusalem than it has with any other earthly city.

God’s original promise to Abraham seems quite clear. The Lord said to Abram, as he was then called:

‘Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.’ (Genesis 13:14-15)

Most Christians think that this promise doesn’t apply any more, or that it is now being fulfilled in the Church, or even that God didn’t say it in the first place (after all, it is in the Jewish Scriptures). Writing to Roman Gentile believers tempted to think like this, however, St Paul writes of the Jewish people:

‘… as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.’ (Romans 11:28-29)

Should we then support Israel whatever she does? Of course not. The Israeli government is no more infallible than any other human government. But nor should we allow people to use criticism of Israel as a cloak for antisemitism. We must repent of antisemitism and call it out, not least in the Church, where it has traditionally been strongest.

But we need to go further than this. In our Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of his anguish at the judgement that is going to come to Jerusalem because of her refusal to accept and believe in him. Jesus says:

‘See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Luke 13:35)

We need to be praying that God’s people will accept Jesus as their Messiah. Given our history of antisemitism in the Church, we need to be sensitive to Jewish suspicion of what many Jews see as Christian attempts to convert them. Equally, however, we need to take seriously the words of St Paul. St Paul writes:

‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.’ (Romans 1:16)

While we should be ashamed of our attitudes and behaviour, as believers, towards the Jewish people in the past, we should not, in our relationship with the Jewish people in the present, be ashamed of the Gospel itself. And, as St Paul writes, the Gospel is to the Jew first.

In the passage immediately before our Gospel reading, our Lord warns his hearers of some surprises that are in store when the Kingdom of God comes. Jesus says:

‘Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.’ (Luke 13:30)

Jesus warns them that they will beg to be let into the Kingdom. They will claim that they ate and drank with him and that he taught on their streets, but Jesus will deny ever knowing them, and they will find themselves thrown out. Instead, Jesus says, people from far away will come and will eat in the Kingdom with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets.

St John writes that ‘he came unto his own’ (John 1:11). Jesus’ own were those who ate and drank with him and whom he taught in their streets, but they, his own, received him not. It is those who were not his own, but who, nevertheless, received him who are welcomed into his Kingdom.

By the time St Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, many in the Church were not Jews but Gentiles. People were coming from far away to enter the Church. St Paul was himself one of those responsible for so many who were not originally one of Jesus’ own coming into the Church. While he rejoiced to see it, St Paul could also see the danger. As the Church became increasingly Gentile, there was a very real danger that the Gentile believers would become spiritually complacent and arrogant in the way some of Jesus’ original Jewish hearers had been.

Describing as ‘natural branches’ those of his fellow countrymen who did not believe in the Messiah, St Paul warned the Gentile believers:

‘For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.’ (Romans 11:22)

The natural branches had not been spared; they had been cut off. Using a different metaphor, Jesus said they would be ‘thrown out’. St Paul tells the Gentiles that the natural branches were broken off because of their lack of faith, but that they, the Gentile believers, only stand through faith. If they fail to continue in faith they too will be cut off. St Paul warns them not to become proud, but to ‘stand in awe’ (Romans 11:20).

Jesus tells his hearers that they should strive to enter by the ‘narrow door’ (Luke 13:24). A door, in other words, that is hard to get through. It is all too easy to take our salvation for granted. We assume that God wants us to be saved and to get into his Kingdom and will not, therefore, ever exclude us. The default theological position in the Church now is’ universalism’, the belief that everyone will eventually be saved.

This may be what we want to believe, and it is certainly in keeping with the mood of our age which stresses inclusion. Believing all will be saved no matter what they do, may give us some comfort and enable us to believe that we will all be OK in the end, but it is only possible to believe it by ignoring Jesus’ teaching about judgement and how people will be excluded from the Kingdom.

It is not just universalists who become complacent, however. Like those who first heard Jesus, we too can assume that because we are members of the right group or believe the right things, we will be OK. It is a dangerous position to be in. We need to wake up if we are not to find ourselves excluded from the Kingdom of God.

As I was preparing this sermon, I was sent a video about God’s love for Hong Kong in which it was said that God is never against us. It’s what many believe. But that wasn’t Jerusalem’s experience in AD70 nor, according to Jesus, will it be the experience of those who find themselves weeping and gnashing their teeth because they have been thrown out of the Kingdom. It sounds nice to say God is never against us. And it may be what we want to hear. It’s just not true.

What is true is that God does not want to be against us. Jesus says to Jerusalem:

‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ (Luke 13:34)

God takes no pleasure in the death of a sinner and longs for us to turn to him. We might reply that we have never taken part in the killing of a prophet, which may be true, but we need to ask whether we have resisted being gathered together with all those who love God. Have we received Jesus as our own personal Lord and Saviour? Have we welcomed him into our lives?

Jesus’ words over Jerusalem may seem distant and to belong to an age long past, but they stand as a warning to all of us not to take the grace of God for granted and not to assume that all will be well, whatever we think or do. Jesus’ pronouncement of judgement on Jerusalem is a warning to enter by the narrow door while we still can.

May we, then, welcome Jesus into our lives as we say the words Jesus wants to hear:

‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Luke 13:35)


Saturday, March 05, 2022

The First Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the First Sunday of Lent.

The First Sunday of Lent 2022

Reading: Luke 4:1-13

It seems a bit strange, having begun to look at St Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry over the past few weeks, to suddenly have to go back to the start of it again. We will, of course, return to St Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry, but for now we must press the rewind button to the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

St Luke has just described Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and has given his version of Jesus’ genealogy (Luke 3:23-38). St Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry back to Adam whom he describes as ‘son of God’ (Luke 3:38). Jesus, of course, is described as God’s Son by the Voice from heaven at his baptism (Luke 3:22). It is Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and what that means for his ministry that is the central theme of our Gospel reading. Jesus is questioned and challenged by the Devil as to what sort of Son he is going to be.

The Gospels don’t tell us a lot about Jesus before he begins his ministry. Only St Matthew and St Luke tell us anything about his birth. St Matthew tells us nothing about his childhood after his escape to Egypt when Herod tries to murder him. St Luke, however, does record one event that happens when our Lord is growing up.

At the age of 12, St Luke tells us, Jesus goes with his parents to the Passover Festival in Jerusalem. On their way back, his parents, who think he is with others in the party they are travelling with, realize he is missing. They eventually find him in the Temple, his mother tells him how anxious they have been about him going missing. He replies that they should know he has to be 'about his Father's business' (or 'in his Father's house' depending on your translation – either are possible). The point is, whichever translation we opt for, that even at the age of 12, Jesus is conscious that God is his Father. Nevertheless, Jesus returns with his earthly parents to Nazareth where, like a good son, he is obedient to them. St Luke writes of this time in Nazareth:

‘And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.’ (Luke 2:52)

Jesus then goes off the radar until he appears in the Gospels at the age of 30 to be baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Presumably in these in-between years, while being obedient to his earthly parents, Jesus was at the same time thinking through what it meant to be God's Son and what it meant to 'be about his Father's business'. God the Father makes clear at Jesus’ baptism that he is pleased with the progress Jesus has made. But now, before Jesus begins his work, it is time for him to be tested. Has Jesus learnt what it means to be God's Son and what it involves? Is he ready for the business his Father has sent him to do?

Our Gospel reading describes three tests that Jesus has to take before he begins his ministry. St Mark gives just a summary of them (Mark 1:12-13). St Matthew (Matthew 4:1-11) and St Luke, however, both describe them in detail, although in a different order. These tests are often referred to as the ‘Temptation of our Lord in the Wilderness’. The word 'temptation', however, can be misleading here. The Greek word that both St Matthew and St Luke use can mean either ‘temptation’ or ‘test’. Commentators I respect argue that ‘temptation’ is the right translation. I don’t know about you, but when I think of the word 'temptation', I think of someone being tempted to do something they want to do but know is wrong: from eating chocolate to murdering their boss! This is not what is going on here. If we do keep using the word ‘temptation’, we need to think of the temptation in terms of a test. The Devil tries to persuade Jesus to do something to test whether he has understood what it is that God wants him to do in his ministry.

Although the Devil is the One God uses to test Jesus, it is important to see that Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit and is led into the wilderness by the Spirit (Luke 4:1). This is something that God wants to happen. God has arranged this testing not simply to see whether Jesus can resist temptation, God wants to know whether Jesus has understood what it means for Jesus to be his Son and whether Jesus understands what is required of him in the years ahead.

The Father has cause to be concerned, not because of anything that Jesus has done, but because of his own previous experience. God has already had a son he wanted to do work for him. A different sort of son, but a son, nevertheless. This son too had been led into the wilderness, where he had been tested, but had failed. During his testing, this son complained against the Father when he became hungry. He had not worshipped only the Lord his God. And he had put the Lord his God to the test.

When God sends Moses to Pharoah, God tells Moses he is to say to Pharoah:

‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son.’ (Exodus 4:22)

Jesus’ tests will match the tests God’s Son, Israel, went through in the wilderness after the Exodus and failed. Will this Son be any different? Will he pass the test? As before, the tests are all about what it means to be God's Son and the answers that Jesus gives will show whether this Son will succeed in carrying out his Father's business where the previous son failed.

There are three tests.

1. The First Test: To Turn Stone to Bread

It is, of course, not a test if the answers are obvious. Again, we fail to see in what way Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was a test because we persist in seeing it primarily in terms of temptation to do something wrong. A temptation in our mind is do something that we already know to be wrong, but which we also know we should resist. Temptation for us is about resisting what we know to be wrong.

Jesus’ testing in the wilderness, however, isn’t primarily to do something he knows to be wrong, but about his understanding of what it means to be God’s Son and how he would live that out in his life and ministry. What is being tested is Jesus’ understanding of himself and the work he has come to do, and what that means in practice.

The first test is to turn stone into bread. Jesus has been without food for forty days. He is hungry. The test lies in whether he will satisfy that hunger by using his power as God’s Son. Very often we are told that the test here is for Jesus to use his power inappropriately. It would be wrong for him, it is said, to use his power to turn stone to bread. But this test question isn’t about whether Jesus will misuse his power, but about what his priorities are in using it. Jesus is being ‘tempted’, to use the language of temptation, to focus on his real physical need. He is being tested as to whether as God’s Son he will prioritize physical need? Jesus, after all, is genuinely hungry. He legitimately needs food. Jesus’ reply is that we should focus on God’s word and what God says to us, and not on our own needs, no matter how legitimate they may be. Jesus’ answer to the Devil is frequently quoted but rarely observed. Jesus answers:

‘It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ (Luke 4:4)

2. The Second Test: To Worship Satanic Power

In the first test, Jesus has to decide what his priorities are: satisfying his physical or his spiritual needs. Jesus chooses God’s word as food for his soul rather than bread for his body. Not that bread is wrong or his body unimportant. It is about priorities. The second test is to obtain power and influence in this world other than by worshipping and serving God alone. As God’s Son, Jesus is destined to be King. He has come in fulfilment of the promises God made by the prophets to send the Messiah, the One who would be the Ruler of his people. The essence of being a Ruler is that you have power to rule. If Jesus wants to be the Ruler of his people, there is not much that he will be able to do in this world without that power, and so doing a deal with the one who has that power is, again, not an unreasonable course to take. How can Jesus achieve his aims in this world without it?

The test, then, is whether Jesus will compromise his worship and service of God to gain the power he needs to realize his calling. After showing Jesus all the kingdoms of this world, the Devil says to Jesus:

‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ (Luke 4:7)

Jesus answers him:

‘It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ (Luke 4:8)

3. The Third Test: To Test God

Jesus’ third test in the wilderness builds on the other two. It is even more difficult than the previous ones as it is based on interpreting the Scriptures. Jesus has quoted the Scriptures in answer to the previous two questions in the test. He has got the answers right. But the Scriptures also said that God would look after his Son and make sure no harm comes to him. Jesus can’t fulfil his mission as God’s Son unless he is sure of his calling and that the people to whom he is sent believe in him. Why not settle it once and for all with a simple demonstration that proves that God is on his side? The success of the act will show that God is with him and behind both him and his ministry.

Jesus is taken by the Devil - whether physically or in a vison, we don’t know - to the pinnacle of the Temple. Interestingly, it will be from here that his brother, James, (according to some church traditions) will be thrown and killed by unbelievers in about 30 years’ time. The Devil’s ‘temptation’ is for Jesus to throw himself from it now. As Jesus is God’s Son, the Scriptures promise that God will look after him. Surely God can be relied upon to intervene to save him? It will be a spectacular demonstration of who he is and a great way to begin his ministry.

Jesus has been tested previously by being asked to prioritize physical need and to realize his goals by gaining political power and glory. He is now being asked to validate his identity, and, by extension, his mission, by a test designed to demonstrate unambiguously that God is on his side. If God were to intervene dramatically for all to see, it would show conclusively to all concerned that Jesus has got it right in what he thinks and does. Jesus has been led into the wilderness to be tested and here in the wilderness, he is now invited instead to test God: to get God to prove he is God’s Son by getting God to protect him from harm and failure.

Jesus refuses quoting Scripture. Jesus answers the Devil:

‘It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ (Luke 4:12)

These tests and temptations are about Jesus’ self-understanding and his understanding of what it is he has been sent by his Father to do. We need to be careful, then, not to make them simply examples of the general temptations to sin of the sort we all experience all the time. These tests of our Lord are specifically about what it means for him to be God’s Son, the Messiah, sent by God to his people Israel who had failed in their own calling as God’s Son. The Devil tempts him to make his work about satisfying physical needs using political power, proving his identity by provoking God.

The first test Jesus faces in the wilderness is whether he will turn stone into bread to satisfy his hunger. Will he be the sort of Son who puts his own physical well-being and comfort first? If he is, then presumably that will also be how he understands his work. The second test is to put gaining political and earthly authority and influence before the worship of God. Will he be the sort of Son who seeks to achieve his aims through power and glory rather than obedience and suffering? If he is, then presumably he will seek an earthly rule, kingdom, and influence. The third and final test is to show that God is on his side in a visible and dramatic way. Will he be the sort of Son who sees success in measurable and demonstrable terms? If he is, then presumably he will judge his work in the same way; his fame and how many followers he attracts will matter to him.

Our Lord was tested to see if he would pass after God's other Son, Israel, had failed. He did. Jesus refused to focus on his own needs and focused instead on God's Word. He renounced the easy route of seeking power and glory rather than worshiping God. He rejected dramatic displays that sought to demonstrate God's approval and make himself the centre of attention. He was obedient to the Father, even though it meant suffering and death. This refusal, renunciation, and rejection characterized his ministry. He came to serve rather than be served and to give his life on behalf of others. He came to die that we might live.

After he has fulfilled what God has sent him to do, the Risen Lord says to his disciples:

‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20:21)

We are now called to continue Jesus’ ministry. While Jesus’ tests are about him and the work the Father sent him to do, we can, nevertheless, learn important lessons from Jesus’ answers to the Devil’s tests as we seek to fulfil our own calling as Christ’s body, God’s people on earth. We ourselves face temptations to pursue a path other than the one our Lord followed. Jesus wants us to follow his way. Will we be tempted to stray?

1. The Temptation to Prioritize Material Well-being

We are embodied beings living in a physical world with bodily and material needs. The urgency of these needs encourages us to think that these are our most important needs. This sets up a conflict between our physical needs and our spiritual needs. At different times in the history of humanity, some have asserted one over the other. In the past, hard though it may be for us to understand today, some have asserted the priority of spiritual needs to the denial of physical needs. For most of us most of the time, however, the physical needs of the body are not something we can easily ignore.

We live in an age, however, which seeks to avoid any conflict between our physical and spiritual needs by prioritizing our physical and material needs in the here and now. The prevailing ideology of our age takes as its working hypothesis that this world is all there is or, at least, that this world is the only world that we should worry about and concern ourselves with.

It is here and now, in the theatre of this world, that our lives are being played out. This world is what matters not some hypothetical strange world to come about which we know little and care less. This means that satisfying human need now must be our first priority. In our minds, this isn’t about greed, but need. After all, we do need food, for example.

Materialism can show itself in different ways. It can reveal itself in the ostentatious display of wealth and in the unbridled desire for ever more money and possessions, but it can also display itself more deceptively as a simple concern for human physical well-being. It is not wrong to be worried about our physical needs any more than it was wrong for Jesus to be hungry. It is how we react to these needs that matters. Do we react in such a way that they take priority over everything else?

Jesus said that ‘man shall not live by bread alone’. He didn’t say that we didn’t need bread and, later in his ministry, he teaches his disciples to pray daily for it. In fact, his most famous miracle is providing bread for five thousand people in the wilderness! If, however, in our desire for bread to feed ourselves and others, we ignore our more basic and urgent need for the Word of God, then our desire for bread, whether for ourselves or for the hungry, becomes an opportunity for the Devil to get us in his power.

Too often both human need and human greed are based on the same assumption, namely, that we live by bread alone. That assumption, however, comes not from God, but, as Jesus realizes, from the Devil.

2. The Temptation to Seek Political Power

Jesus, in his first test, rejects prioritizing physical need asserting instead that we should live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. However, if we take a different point of view and believe this physical world should be the centre of our attention and that our priority should be physical and material well-being, here and now, then this, in turn, will determine our means of achieving it. The means we use to achieve material well-being in this world will need to work both physically and practically, and the means we use will then, inevitably, be both social and political. To make any real and lasting difference in this world, we tell ourselves, we need power and influence.

This doesn’t always express itself in negative ways. Making this world the place where we seek to achieve our goals and realize our ambitions may indeed lead to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany, Lenin’s Soviet Union, or to some of the other terrible atrocities our world has seen, but, equally, it can express itself more altruistically in, for example, the concern for peace, social justice, diversity, inclusion, and equality.

The reason we want political power and influence may be to ensure that there is bread for all and a fair distribution of that bread to all. Nevertheless, the fact remains that while we may differ in what we do with it, ultimately what we want is the same. We want political power to gain happiness in this world. For some, this power is to dominate and control; for others, to change things for the better; but the means and the end are the same: political power to change life materially, for good or ill, in this world now.

Jesus chose a different way. Rather than seeking a seat at the table of power, he chose to be hung from a Cross. Instead of the way of power and glory, he chose a path that involved humiliation, suffering, and death. Jesus rejected the ‘temptation’ to accept power in this world because, as he himself was to put it, his Kingdom isn’t of this world (John 18:36).

Our own desire for power and influence in this world is often based on the false assumption, rejected by Jesus, that what this world needs can only be obtained by gaining political power in it, often power at any cost. But power and influence in this world can only be obtained if we make a pact with the Devil. Jesus replied to him that we should ‘worship the Lord our God and serve only him’. But what is it that we worship: is it status, success, or simply our self? Our idolatry can take many forms. Our gods can look beautiful and sound wonderful, but in serving them we serve gods that will demand our service, and will eventually destroy us, no matter how well-meaning or laudable our aims.

3. The Temptation to Value Success

For Jesus’ ministry to be successful, he needs people to believe he is God’s Son. Why then not publicly establish his identity from the start for all to see by taking God at his word? If, however, Jesus had thrown himself off the Temple to show he was God’s Son, this would not have been a demonstration of his identity and faith, as the Devil presents it to him as being. Instead, it would be a test of God to see if God would intervene as he had promised. Jesus would still have been God’s Son if he had gone through with what the Devil suggested, whether God saved him or not, but where would that leave God and his promises if he didn’t intervene?

As followers of Christ, we want to believe that God is on our side. But how are we to know? If our aims are physical and material well-being, the means of achieving them will obviously be through social and political power and influence. The test, then, of whether God is on our side will also be material and physical. It will be visible and clear to show that we have got it right. The test will be whether it works; whether we are successful; whether it makes us happy.

In the past, the glory, power, and riches of the Church were seen as indication that God was on her side. Today, we use other criteria to determine whether God is on our side. For some, it is the number of people who come to our church services. For others, it is our success in achieving justice and equality in our world. For others, it is whether we get what we want out of life: whether we are healthy, wealthy, and successful.

We create a test designed to prove to ourselves or others that God is with us. We want something visible, that all can see, to show that God is truly on our side, but it is not ourselves we are testing by doing this, but God by holding him to our standards of success and failure.

So desperate are we for signs and wonders, that we often go looking for them and have great joy when we think we have found them. We test God by expecting success in the work we do; in the numbers we attract to our cause; or in our personal achievements in life. But all these tests remain of our own making, and, in the end, they prove nothing except our lack of faith. God will not be tested by us despite our efforts to do so.

After the tests in the wilderness have been completed, St Luke writes:

‘When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.’ (Luke 4:13)

The Devil in the wilderness questions Jesus about his understanding of what it means to be God’s Son. It is Jesus’ obedience and understanding of what it means that is to take him to the Cross. Nailed to the Cross, Jesus is again tested three times about what being God’s Son means.

Firstly, the leaders responsible for Jesus being there, scoff at him saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one (Luke 23:35)!’ Secondly, the soldiers mock him saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself (Luke 23:37)!’ Thirdly, one of the two criminals who are crucified with Jesus derides him saying: ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us (Luke 23:39)!’

They are all clear about what being the Messiah, God’s chosen One means, and it doesn’t mean suffering and dying a cruel death, apparently powerless to do anything about it. For Jesus, however, that is exactly what it means. Importantly for us, Jesus teaches that we are to follow his example; we are each, individually, to deny ourselves and take up our Cross daily (Luke 9:23). Quite simply, we are to be like him.

Finally, in closing, I want to ask three basic test questions, based on what we have been saying, for each of us as individuals to answer.

1. How seriously do you take God's Word compared to how seriously you take satisfying your material wants and needs?

In answering, ask yourself how much time you spend in a day reading the Bible compared to having a meal or watching something on a screen. Do you think that your physical comfort and enjoyment is more important than your spiritual life?

2. Which would you prefer: to be well off and successful or to be known as a regular and committed member of God's Church?

In answering, ask yourself how much time you give, for example, to cultivating contacts that will help you in your career compared to how much time you spend on spiritual activities. Does having money and material possessions matter more to you than your relationship with God?

3. To what extent is your faith in God dependent on everything going right in your life?

In answering, ask what it is you pray for. Is it for material things for yourself and your family or to know and do God's will in your life? Do you see physical well-being and outward success in life as the test of God's blessing?

When the test becomes personal and individual, most of us if we are honest have to admit that we don’t score highly. We do prioritize physical well-being, wealth, and possessions over knowing more about God. We do seek social status, power, and success rather than serving God alone. We do put God to the test by holding him to our standards of what we expect him to do for us.

However, although our score is low all is not lost. Realizing it gives us the opportunity to do something about it. That, traditionally, is what Lent is all about. Lent is a time for repentance for past failure, for reflection on present behaviour, and a chance to renew our commitment to following Jesus on the way of the Cross.

This Lent, then, may our Lord give us the grace we need to examine ourselves, so we too may succeed when we are tested.