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28st February 2021 – Second Sunday of Lent

SERMON FOR LENT 2. 28.02.21

Genesis 17: 1-7 and 15-16; Mark 8: 31-end

"Joining Jesus on death row” is the stark way one writer opens his commentary on the gospel passage we heard earlier from Mark chapter 8. And the critical verse leading to that writer’s conclusion is that rather chilling verse 34 - “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And the biblical scholar F.F. Bruce, in a book entitled The hard sayings of Jesus, said “As commonly applied, this is not a very hard saying. As originally intended, it is very hard indeed; no saying could be harder.”

It seems we come to the heart of what it means to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus. As commonly applied, the expression about taking up the cross is used of some adverse experience, some long-term ailment or illness, or even of some unwelcome company that one is stuck with. “This is the cross I have to bear” – people say. It’s often used in this watered-down way because its literal sense is remote from our experience. I think sometimes the Church has colluded with this idea. We truly believe Jesus walks with us in our sufferings, but when we compare trials we may be going through to the experience of brutal crucifixion that Jesus suffered, we surely miss the point.

A condemned criminal has to abandon all earthly hopes and ambitions, and I don’t feel those spending years on death row, anxiously waiting perhaps for yet another appeal to be heard, are in a much better place. Jesus knew what was coming to him. Were his closest followers prepared to suffer with him, and face a violent death? ‘Taking up the cross’ was no mere figure of speech. I expect you know that the condemned criminal was forced to carry the crossbeam of his cross as he went to his death, and his disciples would no doubt have seen many a sad soul struggling under that heavy weight on their way to the place of execution.

But Jesus does offer the disciples a way out. If they were not prepared for that outcome to their discipleship, let them change their minds while there was time, but let them first weigh the options in the balances of the kingdom of God. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel’s will save it.”

This very straight talking from Jesus came after a typically ill-thought-out interjection from Peter. For Peter had only just made that great ‘Confession’ – ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’: the first of the disciples to be bold enough to say it. But he had missed the point as to what sort of Messiah Jesus would be. Jesus had reinterpreted the role of Messiah. He was not going to be the one to restore David’s monarchy, or overthrow the Roman occupiers: he had learned another vocation, which he seemed to bind up in the title ‘Son of Man.’

So Jesus has to make it clear that his vocation is to undergo great suffering; be rejected; be killed, and after three days, rise again. And Peter rebukes him. In Matthew’s account of the same incident, Peter says “God forbid, Lord; this must never happen to you.” Did Peter say that because he really didn’t think the Messiah could suffer in that way, or did he say it because the consequences for him and the other disciples were unthinkable?

But there are two readings today. In the first we hear God appearing and making a great promise to Abram. Abram was, we’re told, 99 years old when this encounter took place. Whether 99 in our thinking we can’t be sure, but certainly getting on a bit. God promises this old man that he will become the ancestor of many nations. Now Abram already had a son, Ishmael, through his slave-girl, Hagar. He is ready to settle for blessing through Ishmael. But God has other ideas. Ishmael will be blessed, but there will be further blessings for Abram and Sarai. In her old age, Sarah will have a son, through whom God’s covenant with Abraham will be established. Biblical names have meaning and importance. So Abram, meaning ‘exalted father’ becomes Abraham ‘father of a multitude.’ Isaac, the child to be born, means ‘laughter’ – the laughter, whether of joy or derision, of his parents hearing that they will produce him in their later years.

Notice how Abram falls on his face when God promises to make the covenant with him. As Bishop Tom Wright observes, “Abraham and Peter offer a stark and sobering contrast. Abraham looks at his good-as-dead body and believes God’s promise of life. Peter looks at his dreams of being the King’s right hand man and refuses to hear the King speaking of the royal vocation to suffer and die. Example and warning keep us on the Lenten path.”

It would be good if you could also read the passage from Romans 4 set for today – 4: 13-end. Paul makes the point that Abraham looked at God’s promises, and recognized that they meant that God would give life where there was none, and believed. The Christian listens to the gospel message that the creator God raised the Messiah from the dead, recognizes that this means God doing what is normally impossible, and believes. Abraham’s faith is reckoned to him as righteousness: faith here being an active and personal trust in God who works in this special way.

It was this faith that Peter sadly lacked at the time of today’s story. He was looking at things from a human point of view, not God’s. He could not see that the way to life was the way of the cross. Later on, of course, he did. Maybe you know the story ‘Quo vadis?’ According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, Peter is fleeing from crucifixion in Rome, and along the road he meets the risen Jesus. Peter asks “Domine, quo vadis?” “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replies, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Peter then gains courage to return to the city, where he is martyred. There is a church of ‘Domine Quo Vadis’ on the outskirts of Rome where the meeting is said to have taken place.

The life and response of Abraham to God, and of Peter to Jesus, reminds us that our calling is not a once-for-all affair. Abram was first called at 70 years old to leave everything he knew and set out. Now, at 99, a new chapter begins. He remained at the call of God. Peter’s life of discipleship seemed often to be a case of two steps forward, one step back, and maybe we feel that is where we are sometimes.

Everyday we can renew our trust in God’s promise to us, and be assured that faith is reckoned as righteousness. But we will only find God is trustworthy if we seek the good God wants in our lives. It seems to be bound up with this truth from Jesus ‘Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ No escaping the hard words of Jesus. But I find encouragement in this prayer attributed to a former vicar of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, Austen Williams:

"O Lord, I am two men; one is longing to serve thee utterly, and one is afraid; Have compassion on me. I am two men: one will labour to the end; and one is already weary: Have compassion on me. I am two men: and one knows the suffering of the world, and one knows only his own: Have compassion on me. And may the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ fill my heart and the hearts of all everywhere. Amen.”

 

e notice of.

For Jesus, baptism was a commission to do the work his Father had appointed him to do. Baptism is no less of a commission for us. In the present-day baptism service, the candidate says, or the parent of the candidate says, “I turn to Christ; I repent of my sins; I renounce evil.” In the passage from 1 Peter this morning, the writer says ‘Baptism saves you: it is not the washing away of bodily dirt, but the promise made to God from a good conscience.” Baptism is something carried out within the Christian community, and is a kind of pledge. It calls on God to maintain the faithfulness that he has displayed in the past, such as by saving Noah and the eight people saved in the Ark. But, once baptised, the onus is on the person baptised and the Christian community supporting that person to hold fast to the pledge they make – ‘I turn to Christ; I repent of my sins; I renounce evil.” Those words form quite a good intention we could hold in our minds for Lent.

At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends on him like a dove, and the voice sounds from heaven, but immediately, Mark says, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. He does not go of his own will; He was to be tested in the same inescapable way that we are tested. Now you might have thought that after such an uplifting spiritual experience as he had in his baptism Jesus would be safe from danger or temptation, rather like many think at the moment, that once we have had our Covid-19 innoculation we are immediately safe; but no – Jesus is straightaway driven into the wilderness to be tested. The grace given at baptism should enable us to repel the tempter; it doesn’t innoculate us against the tempter.

We might think that we’re all going through a kind of wilderness experience at the moment, and this is making many people quite uncomfortable and uneasy. Somebody remarked the other day that in our lockdown isolation we all have too much time to think, and that we do not always enjoy the thoughts we have, or the issues we seem to dwell upon, which we wouldn’t if we were as busy as we usually are. Such periods of solitude, or isolation, bring us face to face with who we really are when comforts or distractions are removed, and that is when the uncomfortable feelings accost us. Jane Williams notes “Lent challenges us to remove some of our safety nets. Many of us do that in very small ways. We give up alcohol or chocolate, or some other comfort, and find how hard it is to manage without these inessential luxuries. But Lent is not just an exercise in breast-beating and self-testing. Its basic questions are “What are you for? What do you depend on? Where do you get your self-definition?” We might struggle a bit with some of those phrases, so maybe just put those three questions together into one like this: ‘Who am I and what am I here for?’ This was pretty much what Jesus had to discover in his period in the wilderness. One moment he is John’s cousin and coming to the Jordan to be baptised; the next he is revealed as the Son of God, and immediately set apart. A sudden life-changing experience has taken place. It’s a bit like the election of a new Pope. As you know, all the cardinals gather in conclave in Rome. When the Pope is elected, he doesn’t return home to his diocese to give three months’ notice and begin clearing his house; he immediately starts his work and remains in Rome. So it was that Pope Francis had famously to telephone his newsagent in Buenos Aires to cancel the papers.

But for Jesus, the task ahead had to be discovered. He had to go into the desert to find out what he was for. Once he had undergone his temptations, he comes into Galilee proclaiming the good news, and announcing that ‘the kingdom of God has come near.’ It’s as if the Kingdom of God does come near every time we overcome temptation. I suppose that if every person in the world turned to Christ; repented of their sins; and renounced evil, then God’s kingdom would fully come.

But we live in an interim period. Temptations still abound. Satan/The Devil – however you think of him, or it, still attacks. But because Jesus overcame, we are given grace to meet our temptations and to overcome. Temptation will come our way in many different disguises – not being entirely truthful on official forms or tax-returns in the hope of escaping some extra cost; basking in the limelight over something and rather enjoying it; turning a blind eye to somebody in need and retreating into our own comfortable world.

One writer says, “There is no sin in running-up against such temptations; the sin is not remembering in time to send them packing.”

So let us take to heart again the words of today’s collect for our true comfort and encouragement: Give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit, and as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

 

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