Lent I

The Church has entered the season of Lent, and she goes, with her Lord, into the desert for forty days, to pray, to turn away from sin, to turn back to God, to fast, to be generous in almsgiving. We do this to prepare to celebrate Jesus’ passion, Death and Resurrection in Holy Week and Easter. We get ready to celebrate the holiest week of the Church’s year by having something of a spiritual spring clean. This is a very good thing indeed. We need to do it, so that we can be reminded where we need to put some work in.

Our first reading this morning take us right back to the start of the problem of human sin: Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden. They are tempted by the serpent to do what God has told them not to do. Thinking that you know better than God, and choosing to do what you want to do is where the sin of pride comes from. Adam and Eve prefer to trust the serpent, who promises that they will become like God. They are disobedient: they do not listen to what God says, and act in accordance with it. But rather than knowing good and evil, all they know is that they are naked, and cover their nakedness. The serpent makes empty promises, and they are taken in by them. Such is the power of lies. 

But while we have heard how sin and death came into the world, we also hear in our second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans how disobedience is countered by the obedience of Jesus Christ. It is obedience which will see Our Lord die on the Cross for us. Christ will bear the burden of our sin, to pay the debt which we cannot. This is what we are preparing to celebrate: one act of righteousness which ‘leads to justification and life for all men’ (Rom 5:18 ESV). To be justified is to be declared righteous in the sight of God. We are guilty, yet God declares us innocent. We deserve punishment, and yet are rewarded. It is remarkable. Such is God’s love for us that our slate is wiped clean. Each and every one of us deserves to be cast aside, for our sins, like those of Adam & Eve separate us from God and each other. Yet God did not leave us in slavery to sin, but sent His Son, so that we might have life in and through Him. This is the Good News of the Gospel. 

In the Gospel this morning we see Jesus at a crucial point, between His Baptism and the calling of the first disciples: Peter and Andrew, James and John. Christ goes into the desert for forty days, to be alone, to pray and to fast, and the church keen to imitate our Saviour likewise goes into the desert so that we may grow closer to God, that we may be purged and prepared to celebrate the mystery of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. 

Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, a place traditionally associated with the prophets and with encounter with God. After fasting for forty days and forty nights He is hungry. This is no surprise at all. He has been fasting for forty days, Our Lord is starving – he is fully human not some superhero who is immune to human feelings and needs. So the devil tempts Him by saying, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ (Mt 4:3 ESV). The temptation works on several levels. By doubting that Jesus is God and asking Him to prove it the devil is continuing to mock the God he refuses to serve. It is a temptation to be relevant: Jesus is hungry and needs to eat, but is being tempted to use the creative power of God simply to serve an appetite. The world tempts us to be relevant, and to conform ourselves to it, rather than let the world be conformed to the will of God. Jesus’ reply to the devil, that man does not live by bread alone but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God, reminds us that as Christians we are fed by Word and Sacrament, nourished by God so that we may grow in faith, and hope, and love. 

Christ is taken to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and told to throw Himself down. This is the temptation to be spectacular, to do something for show, again something which the contemporary church seems rather keen on. But nothing should be done for show; we are called to follow Christ simply and humbly, trusting in Him. The devil wants to put God to the test, it is an act of disobedience, contrary to the humble obedience which sees us live trusting in God, relying upon Him, formed by Him.

Christ is finally tempted to turn away from God the Father, to worship a false god. He is offered much in material terms –- all the world and its splendour -– wealth and power –- a huge temptation for humanity, and one into which many people give. The Church too has given in, and continues so to do. We have to be weak, powerless and vulnerable, utterly reliant upon God so that God can be at work in us, as we humbly worship and serve Him. It may look foolish in worldly terms, but that is the point –- we are not meant to be conformed to the world, but as we seek to grow in faith, in humility, and obedience, we allow God to be at work in us –- taking us and transforming us into His likeness.

The temptation to worship a false God: money, power, or success is always there, and many in the church give in to feelings of ambition, and if they are not ‘successful’ end up bitter, cynical, and miserable. But success is itself empty, popular favour can disappear like a puff of smoke. It is fleeting, it does not last. Whereas in Christ we are offered something that will last: eternal life with God in heaven. 

So as we undertake to follow Christ in our Lenten pilgrimage we do so in our weakness, so that we may rely upon God, and Him alone. We do so joyfully, knowing that Christ’s victory which we will celebrate at Easter is total and complete – it is justification and life for all.

Let us pray that we may receive grace to follow Christ so that we may prepare to celebrate His Death and Resurrection and sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

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Quinquagesima (7th Sunday of Year A)

Generally speaking the ageing process is not one that people tend to enjoy: you cannot do what you used to do, and you ache more than you ever did when you were young. There are however great consolations: chief among them is wisdom, and in particular the wisdom of not bearing a grudge, anger, or hatred. Life is too short, and they do no good. In fact they harm us, far more than others. Over time they can eat us up, and it isn’t pretty or good, or healthy. 

This is why our first reading this morning tells us in no uncertain terms how we are to live our lives: not in hatred, bitterness or anger, not with vengeance or grudges, but with love, for we are to be holy as God is holy, and God is also love, so we are to love. It is easy to forget this, and we do regularly, which is why we need forgiveness. 

The church in Corinth knew this all too well. They had given themselves over to bitterness and quarrelling, forming cliques, and setting rich against the poor. That is why St Paul is writing to them. In this morning’s reading St Paul begins by reminding the Corinthian Christians that they are living stones, built into the temple of God, and filled with the Holy Spirit. It is as true for us as it was for them. We too are called to holiness, and love. Love and forgiveness can look quite foolish to the world around us. The world tells us that we should get angry, and the media encourages this: in print, on the television, on the internet. It sells, and it makes us feel lousy. It creates a problem which we attempt to solve through retail therapy, or some other means, to dull our senses, and take away the pain and misery. Thankfully God knows better. While God’s wisdom looks like foolishness, it is the world that is truly foolish, while God is truly wise. The only way to heal our many wounds is through God who gave His only Son Jesus Christ to die for us, and rise again, that we might have life in Him. As St Paul says: ‘For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.’ (1Cor 1:21-25 ESV) For two thousand years our message has been the same, and may it continue until the Lord comes again. 

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus turns accepted wisdom on its head. While the Law of Moses allowed for limited revenge to take place, Jesus deepens the moral law, and makes it much more demanding. We are not to offer any resistance to mistreatment, and we are to be generous to anyone who asks of us, regardless of who they are. Only gentle non-violent love can truly change the world. It is exacting and challenging. God asks a lot of us who follow Him, so that we might live lives of love. But by so doing we can be a powerful witness to the world, calling it back to the path it should tread, and proclaiming the values of the Kingdom.

It was accepted in the ancient world that you would love your friends and hate your enemies, it is, after all, human nature. But Jesus demands that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, and in the first three centuries of the church there was quite a lot of persecution. There still is today. We continue to pray for those who persecute our brothers and sisters in Christ, that God would turn their hearts, and that they might come to know the love and forgiveness of God. It might seem foolish to do such a thing, but as Christians we know that prayer works, it changes things, and also that the example of Christians living out their faith, bearing witness to it in the world draws people to Jesus Christ. This authentic witness is powerful, and proof that the church will outlast unjust regimes. 

It isn’t an easy thing to do. It is much easier to give in to feelings like hate. That’s the problem: loving your enemies is difficult, it takes effort, it is an act of the will, to will the good of another, one who has hurt us. But only love and forgiveness have the power to heal and restore, to make the world a better place. There is a cost, certainly, but it is what we are called to do, by a God who loves us, for our sake. We are called to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect, to live out love and forgiveness in our lives, to make them a reality in the world. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like in practice. This is how we change the world, one soul at a time, by living out the same love which sees Jesus die on the Cross for us. It is difficult, and costly, and we can only do it through the love and mercy of God, in His strength and not our own. By letting God be at work in our lives, trusting Him to be at work in us, through His Grace.

As we prepare to begin the season of Lent, we look to the Cross as our only hope, the greatest demonstration of God’s love for us. May we live out the love and forgiveness which we see in Christ. May we turn away from our sins, and live out the perfection of Christ, to proclaim the truth of His Kingdom, and to call men and women to live lives from hatred and anger, filled with love and forgiveness so that they and all creation may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen.

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Sexagesima (6th Sunday of Yr A)

People nowadays can often have a rather negative view of the Old Testament. This is a terrible shame. They think the God of the Old Testament is angry, and nasty, and horrible. The New Testament, on the other hand, is all about how God loves us, and it has a much more sympathetic picture of the deity. The first position is entirely wrong, it represents a misunderstanding of who God is, and how God acts. Thus Jesus is completely right when He says, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’(Mt 5:17 ESV). Christ does not abolish the Law or the Prophets. The prophets speak of Him, they foretell a coming Messiah, He fulfils their prophecies. 

Our first reading this morning from Eccesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach, presents us with a number of alternatives. We are free to choose. Do we want to keep God’s commandments and act faithfully? We can choose between fire and water, life and death. God does not force us to choose one or the other, but one is clearly good, and the other bad. The problem is that we often choose the wrong one. This is what sin is: choosing the wrong thing. God does not tell us to be ungodly, or give us permission to sin, and yet WE do. This is why forgiveness of sin is such a big deal: we all need it regularly. Also, holiness of life matters: God wants us to flourish, and we flourish by trying to live holy lives in accordance with God’s will.

In the Gospel this morning Jesus expects a lot from us. Jesus does not abolish the Law of Moses, quite the opposite. He makes it a lot stricter. ‘Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (Mt 5:19-20 ESV) The point is that we are free to choose. We can choose to do the right thing, if we listen to God, if we read Holy Scripture, if we pray, if we trust God to guide us. It is possible: Jesus spends His entire life giving us the example of how to live as humans, made in God’s image. It is possible, but it is difficult, and we will fail, especially if we trust in our own strength alone. As Christians we believe that God is loving and merciful, that our sins are forgiven, if we repent, and turn away from our sins, and ask for God’s forgiveness. Indeed sin is such a big deal that Jesus dies to take away our sins. God dies for us, for you and me, hands Himself over willingly to suffer and die on our behalf. This why we regularly celebrate the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, because Jesus took bread and wine, blessed them, broke the bread, and gave them to His disciples saying, ‘This is My Body … This is My Blood’ and to them to do this. So we do. So that we might feed on the most precious food and drink there is, to heal our wounded souls and bodies, to have a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet prepared for us, to strengthen us to live the life of faith. Without it we cannot live, without God’s help we will fail, so we need it, and we need to trust in God to help us to do His will, and walk in His way. 

We can do this because of what God in Christ has done for us. The Cross is the place where the world, the flesh, and the devil are conquered. Here, sin which separates us from God and each other is dealt with. Because of what God has done in Christ we are able to make the choice to try to be righteous. We can do this if we rely upon God. The failure of the Scribes and Pharisees is that they rely upon the Law and their  human strength and will. Jesus expects perfection from His disciples because they are following His example, and trusting God to be at work in them. 

The Eucharist is a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet: something God has in store for us, or as St Paul says, quoting the prophet Isaiah (64:4), ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1Cor 2:9 ESV). Heaven is our true home, and its glory is beyond our understanding. Enfolded in the love of God, we may spend eternity worshipping the God who loves us and who made us. This is why the Lord of Glory died: to give us the hope of heaven. This is what we are preparing for here and now. 

Jesus makes demands of us because following Him is not easy: it is demanding, and it comes with a cost. Thus, the church is to be a place of reconciliation, where sins are forgiven, where wounds are healed. It is hard to be reconciled to someone. We have to recognise our own failures and shortcomings, and seek forgiveness ourselves. It is a difficult and costly process, which sees us stripped of pride, humble and reliant upon God as the only one who can heal us. We are powerless, and have to rely on One whose Love and Generosity can do in us what we cannot. We can forgive because we are forgiven, we can love because we are loved. 

Jesus expects much of us, because that is what the Christian life is: difficult, and demanding. Much is asked of us, in how we live our lives. We are to be in the world, but not of the world, living differently. As Christians, if we are to be salt and light then we need to live lives which make people think, ‘They’re not like us’ ‘They don’t do what we do’. We can choose life or death. We have through Christ the possibility of eternal life with God. May we choose wisely, and live as an example to others so that all creation may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen

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Septuagesima (5th Sunday of Yr A)

The traditional name for this Sunday, Septuagesima, means seventieth, approximately seventy days before Easter, and it marked the beginning of a three-week period which looks forward to the beginning of Lent. It had a penitential character: purple or violet vestments were worn, and in the Eucharist and the Daily Office the church fasted from hymns of praise, to prepare for the Great Fast. It reminds us that what we Do affects who we ARE. Such discipline helps to form us as more loving and generous people.

Such concerns lie at the heart of our first reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah. In verse 6 the prophet cries, ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?’ What God desires is to say sorry for the wrongs we have done that we show that contrition by doing the right thing: being loving and generous, the way God wants us to be. 

Thus, the prophet advises us to share our bread with the hungry, to give shelter to the homeless in our own homes, to clothe the naked. We also need to take away the yoke which is a burden to others, the pointing finger of accusation, and speaking wickedness: being harsh, not telling the truth, or telling it in a way that is designed to cause pain. We all need to hear this, and be reminded of how we can, each and every one of us, fall short. I know I do, and I ask for your forgiveness. 

The point is that we can ask the forgiveness, of a God who loves, which is why St Paul simply proclaims, ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’. On the Cross Christ bears the yoke, the burden of our sins, and demonstrates the LOVE God has for us: real costly love, which sees Him die for us. This is love put into practice to heal and to restore the world, a simple act, seen by many as the execution of a common criminal, dying a slave’s death. Yet THIS brings about the greatest freedom humanity has ever known.

In the Gospel this morning Jesus begins by using metaphors to describe His disciples, They are salt. Nowadays we are used to salt as a bad thing, something of which we eat too much. Salt helps to give food flavour, it preserves food, keeping it edible, and without it we would die. Salt was expensive, a luxury, but if it is no longer good needs to be thrown out. You cannot use it. Jesus’ disciples need to be salty, there should be something about how we live out and proclaim the Gospel in word and deed that makes people go, ‘Mmm!’ Otherwise there is not much point. 

As well as being salt the disciples are light. Light illuminates, it scatters darkness, it helps us to see and keeps us safe. None of us would drive a car at night without the lights on, obviously. It would cause an accident, it might get us killed. Lampposts are high up in the air, so that they can illuminate the street below. We have lights which hang from our ceilings for the same reason. A covered light does not give out light, a light on the floor cannot light up a room. Our Lord encourages His disciples to ‘let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’ Our faith then is not simply something that we believe, but rather it is something that we DO. Our actions and our words proclaim the truth of the Gospel to the world around us.

Just as a city on a hill cannot be hidden, so it is with Christians. We are visible, and for our many failings people will call us hypocrites, and while they have a point, our failings should always lead us to ask forgiveness, and repent. Because of what Christ has done for us on the Cross we have access to God’s forgiveness. The point is that while we fail, we repent and keep on trying to live out our faith in our lives. It is simple and clear, like St Paul’s proclamation to the church in Corinth. Our faith does not ‘rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.’ It looks foolish and weak, and so it should, in worldly terms. God’s weakness is greater than human strength, that is its power. 

Christ shows us how to live in the Beatitudes, and encourages us to put it into practice in our lives, and to follow His example of going to the Cross to proclaim the fact that God loves us, a God who is Love. Love forgives, so that it can transform us. We that transformation in Isaiah, put into practice to help transform the world. Paul is transformed from a persecutor of the Church into its greatest evangelist, who spends the rest of his life telling people about Jesus, and how He has transformed lives, and continues to do so. For two thousand years the Church has lived the truth of this transformation, and continues to do so, and invites men and women to come and have their lives transformed by the God who loves them.

So we begin to prepare for Lent, the great season of repentance, when we acknowledge our sins, and turn back to God, and prepare to celebrate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

As we look towards the Cross, our only hope, our only salvation, may we live generous and loving lives. May we be salt and light in the world, giving it taste and illumination, offering it the chance for conversion, to turn back to the Lord who loves them, who shows them that love on the Cross, that they may have life in and through Him, that they may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen.

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The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Once upon a time it was not uncommon to hear of the Churching of Women, sometimes called Thanksgiving after Childbirth, as it was a dangerous and risky business. We are perhaps now not quite so used to ideas of ritual purity inherent in the Thanksgiving for a woman after Childbirth, or her re-admission into society after a period of confinement. But the Law of Moses required that forty days after giving birth the mother was purified in a mikvah, a ritual bath. The law also required that her son, as a first-born male, was presented to the Lord, and sacrifices were made. Today the Church celebrates the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and commonly called Candlemas. The name is derived from the ceremonies which saw the candles for the coming year blessed at this service, so that they may burn as lights which proclaim Christ, the true Light, the light to lighten the Gentiles. They are different titles, but one feast, which make us think about who and what Jesus Christ is, and what he does.

This feast then is the fulfilment of the prophecy spoken by Malachi in our first reading, which also looks to our purification in and through the death of Christ and His atoning sacrifice of Himself, which will be be re-presented here, made present so that we can share in it, so that we can be healed and restored by the very Body and Blood of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it:

Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. 

It is hard to see how it could be any clearer. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac on Mt Moriah, so now God will gladly give His only Son, Jesus Christ, on the altar of the Cross, to restore our relationship with Him.

The Holy Family go to the Temple to give thanks to God and to comply with the Law, just as they had in circumcising their baby on the eighth day: and in so doing they demonstrate obedience, they listen to what God says and do it and as such they are a model for all Christian families to follow — we need to be like them, listening to what God tells us and doing it, regardless of the cost.

When the Holy Family go to the Temple they encounter Simeon, a man of faith and holiness. A man devoted to God, who is looking for the consolation of Israel. He knows that he will not die until he sees the Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed, and the Saviour of the World. As he takes the child Jesus in his arms he prays: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

The promise made to him by God, revealed through the Holy Spirit, has been fulfilled in the six-week-old infant in his arms. Simeon can prepare to meet his God happy in the knowledge that Salvation has dawned in this little child. As Christ was made manifest to the Gentiles at Epiphany, so now His saving message is proclaimed, so that the world may know that its salvation has come in the person of Jesus Christ. Simeon speaks to the Blessed Virgin Mary of her Son’s future, and the pain she will endure at the foot of the Cross. Before he dies Simeon is looking to the Cross, the means by which our salvation is wrought, the Cross at which Mary will stand to see humanity freed from its sin through the love and mercy of God, through grace, the free gift of God in Christ. So as Candlemas concludes our celebration of Christmas, and the mystery of the Incarnation, so to it points to that which gives it its true meaning: the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Candlemas prepares for the coming season of Lent by changing our focus and attention from Jesus’ birth to His death, for our sins.

That is why we are here this morning, to be fed by Christ, to be fed with Christ, truly present in His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. A God whom we can touch and taste. A God who shares His Divine Life with us, so that we can be transformed by Him, built up as living stones as a temple to His Glory, and given a foretaste of Heaven here on Earth. This is our soul’s true food, the bread for the journey of faith, which sets us free to live for Him, to live with Him, through Him and in Him.

The significance of what is happening is not just recognised by Simeon, but also by Anna, a holy woman, a woman of prayer, a woman who is close to God, she recognises what God is doing in Christ, and she proclaims it, so that God’s redemption of His people may be known. Let us be like her, and let all of our lives, everything which we say, or think, or do, proclaim the saving truth of God’s love to the world.

And finally the Holy Family go back to Nazareth, and Jesus begins to grow up, in the favour of God, obedient to God and His parents in the Gospel we see all of human life: birth, death, work, normality hallowed by the God who loves us, who gives His Son for us. God shares our human life, as He will share our death, to restore us, to heal us,

So let us burn, like the candles which God has blessed, let our faith be active to give light and warmth and hope to the world, so that it may feel that love and warmth, and come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever, Amen.

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