Yesterday, I had two really fun events to help me to celebrate Easter (a day early but good none-the-less) – there was the Messy Church at Thorpe Abbotts and the Easter Bonnet Parade in Harleston. These two events and today are such a contrast to the days before where I meditated again and again on the last hours of Jesus before and during his brutal death. The bitter and the sweet so close together. It is like a sweet cake with a dark chocolate centre.
That is what Holy Week and Easter together tell me. They tell me that the faith that I follow includes the bitter and the sweet. But just as with food the opposites improve the whole, like bitter chocolate in a sweet cake. So it is that having gone through the bitterness of Lent and Holy Week the sweetness of Easter can really be tasted. It is likegiving up chocolate for Lent and then tasting that first piece on Easter morning – sweetness and joy to blow the senses!
This morning I celebrate that Jesus’ work is done; the darkness in me and in my world is banished, and death itself is killed:
The Morning That Death Was Killed (Steve Turner)
I woke in a place that was dark
The air was spicy and still
I was bandaged from head to foot
The morning that death was killed.
I rose from a mattress of stone
I folded my clothes on the sill
I heard the door rolling open
The morning that death was killed.
I walked alone in the garden
The birds in the branches trilled
It felt like a new beginning
The morning that death was killed.
Mary, she came there to find me
Peter with wonder was filled
And John came running and jumping
The morning that death was killed.
My friends were lost in amazement
My father, I knew, was thrilled
Things were never the same again
After the morning that death was killed.
Let’s go back for a moment to Matthew 28.5-7: The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” Now I have told you.’
The angel said to the women after he rolled away the stone, “Do not be afraid”. Don’t be afraid the angel says to me, the bright Easter morning is here. Life is still be so full of fear, pain and darkness but for this moment at least I intend to follow the angel’s advice. I may well slip back into the fear and worry but now is Easter morning, the morning I have been preparing for throughout Lent. Now I see the gold and the light and the joy. Today, this morning, I know is the ‘morning that death was killed’, it is also the morning that fear was killed and worry too!
Today there is hope – bright and clear. There will be darkness in the future but today is bright. Today reminds me that the darkness can never overcome the light, no matter how hard it might try. Today there is a glint in my eyes, even tired eyes like these. There is a joy inside that just wants to bubble up and flow over me.
This is how I imagine those women who visited the empty tomb. There had been so much darkness and horror for them, then they met Jesus again. He was alive, he is alive – they didn’t understand it – I don’t really understand it – but it was real – it is real. Jesus was so real that they cried and they laughed both at the same time. Some things I don’t need to understand, some things are best just enjoyed. Like a good wine, or a wonderful Easter meal. I say thanks to God and to the cook, but I don’t analyse it; no I experience it, I savour it, I enjoy it to the full. To cook a good meal I would need to know what order to cook things and for how long, but they aren’t the questions to ask as the wonder is placed in front of me.
Homer Simpson, from the Simpsons had a catch phrase, “Can’t talk – eating”. That is what it is like with Easter – ‘can’t think – loving, smiling, partying’. Thinking and puzzling come later: They come after I experience the reality once again. That way the theories never get in the way of the truth and the joy of Easter. I can understand all the theology of Easter but if it isn’t here in my heart then it is truly useless; well it may save someone else but it would be just dust and ashes to me.
During Lent and Holy Week I have joined with Jesus in his pain and death, now I join with him in his triumph. Now I just want to bask in it all. It is like when my daughter was born. It was a long and difficult birth for Viv, but when it was over I just wanted to bask in it all. At that moment I didn’t want to know the science of life or of even that of child rearing, I just wanted to smile and let the joy of Elinor’s new life sink into me. I just wanted to smile and thank God for giving her to Viv and me.
Today is such a day. A day for celebrations. The dark and the bitter will no doubt be a part of my life again. But I won’t be afraid because I have celebrated the conquering of pain and death. Jesus has let me sneak a quick look at the last page of my book and I know the ending. I know that any pain that I feel will be transformed by him, I know that my death will be no death at all but only the door to full life forever.
Now I look back to the words of the angel to those women at the empty tomb. I look again and I read, “go quickly and tell his disciples”. I look back to Jesus’ words to these women and I read, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers.” I read and I know that I can’t keep all this to myself, I mustn’t be afraid, I must go and let people know the wonderful news that I have. A call to go into the world this Easter… but first…
Poem for Easter (Steve Turner)
What came first
Easter or the egg?
Three days in a tomb
or four days
Bank Holiday Monday).
When is a door
not a door?
When it is rolled away.
When is a body
not a body?
When it is a risen.
Why was it the Saviour rode on the cross?
To get us
to the other side.
Behold I stand.
Behold I stand and what?
Behold I stand at the door and
He’s like that – Jesus keeps knocking on my heart; persuading me to let him in and change me. Jesus is like that, he is bold enough to walk right through death, then he stands and waits outside my heart – and the hearts of all people… ‘Knock knock’ The rest is up to me – The rest is up to everyone who hears.
Very deep and moving reflections on a radical act by Jesus
A new minister decides to visit his Sunday School. He’s not too good with young children and a bit stern. He walks in and all these little eager faces look up at him. He freezes. Then stares hard at them and says, “Well. If all the good children were green and all the bad children were blue, what colour would you be?” Now lots of alarmed faces look at him, and little Jack begins to cry. Then after an age of awkwardness Mary pipes up and says, “Revd. if all the good children were green and all the bad children were blue, I’d be streaky!” (Based on a story by Anthony De Mello)
I never went to Sunday School – well almost never. I was in the Boys’ Brigade for a while and going to Sunday School was compulsory. I vaguely remember quite enjoying it but that all stopped when I left the Boys’ Brigade. But I do know that many people have warm and happy memories of Sunday School. My father-in-law fondly remembers the Sunday School trips away often to the seaside: A real treat from someone growing up just after the war in a large city like Liverpool.
When Sunday School works it gives a real opportunity for children to explore the faith in ways that have meaning for them. Sunday School should then be the springboard into a more adult growth in faith, perhaps through a Youth Group and then full membership of the Church.
Hopefully for you Sunday School has been a springboard to a deep and mature faith. A life of learning more and more about your faith. There’s so much more to learn and experience about God, no matter what your age or experience.
You see, going back to that story, I’ve found that I’m streaky and so is everyone else that I’ve met. I’m not perfect and that’s why I keep on learning and finding ways to let God make me ever more the person I should be, the person I was born to be. It’s the same for all of you. I’m pretty sure that you’re streaky too. That’s not a bad thing, not a complaint, just a fact of life.
I am streaky, all people are streaky and Jesus came to help us out.
The writer of Ecclesiastes is right, there is a time for all things (Cf. Ecclesiastes 3). There was a time for Sunday School and now there is a time to learn and grow in different ways. But as you and I move on, Jesus warns us that our heavenly Father has, “hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” So we still need something of that simplicity and honesty that we had when we were younger. But why bother? As a child we had little choice about going to Sunday School and now there are so many things going on; why should we take all that time to keep learning about God and growing in our faith?
Well I keep going because I know I’m streaky, and want to be better. But to be honest I can very easily say to myself, “Well, I’m not perfect, but I’m not all that bad. Why bother learning and praying and seeking after God? Why not take it easy?” I listen to that voice and I could very easily do just that. I’ve just come from a well paid job so I could probably find something else to pay the bills if I stopped being a vicar. I could trust to what I’ve already learned about God and leave it there.
I could… but that would be to forget something really important. The fact that I’ve found that by following Christ, by being open to the Spirit, life is better too. Life is more full of meaning and purpose. It is as though, with the Spirit in me, the colours that little bit more vivid. I am getting closer to the creator of me and all things so how could it be different? So I know that in the good times being close to God makes those times even better, deeper and more meaningful.
I also know that good times don’t last for ever. I’ve been through a number of painful events and who knows what is round the corner. This experience too has shown me that God’s Spirit is there with me guiding me through these times too. I have learned through experience that Jesus was not lying when he said, “‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’” (Matthew 11.28-30)
Life is streaky, I’m streaky and God understands. He more than understands, through Jesus he has acted to give me the way to live as a streaky person in a streaky world, and to live with hope and purpose. I hope that your Sunday School experiences lead you too into a faith that is as wonderful for you, streaky as you are.
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Originally posted on Zen and the art of tightrope walking:
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Over the last week or so I have been reminded again and again about mortality – my own and the mortality of those around me. It started before then with Jamie, one of our lay ministers, being hit by a car. He is getting better but it is going to be a long road to full health again. Then my wife went into hospital for an operation. The condition that she had was life threatening but thankfully she was in little immediate danger. Still it made me think. Then I had 4 funerals to conduct in quick succession, one of a husband and wife who died within a fortnight of each other. Then Saturday morning I received a message that someone had had a heart attack and had been taken to hospital. I’m putting down my thoughts having just visited the hospital.
So the story of the death of Lazarus is one that I can really relate to at the moment (John 11.1-45). Death is as much a fact of life now as it was in Jesus’ time. I hear how upset Martha was and I feel as though I share her pain. I hear Mary and I not only feel her loss but also her anger and despair, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Why had Jesus let this happen? Lazarus, Martha and Mary were all Jesus’ friends, but he had not cut short his preaching tour to help. If I knew a fellow minister who had abandoned his pastoral care of his friends to finish a preaching tour I would need to let him (or her) know that his priorities were all wrong. That people come first.
I can imagine myself there, with Martha and Mary and their friends. But I also notice that Jesus wasn’t above it all. He didn’t remain aloof from all this messy emotion – he too wept. I also recognise the sneering comments from some of the onlookers, “some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’” Sadly, the scoffers are still as much with us today as they ever were – I feel that powerful temptation myself.
So this isn’t a strange unreal story from a distant time, dealing with concerns that have been long forgotten by our modern world. This story shows God intimately involved with my fears and my deep emotions. This is about the pain in life and the reality of life ending. It is about being a helpless human being.
This story only moves from being an everyday tragedy right at the end, with Jesus saying the words, “Lazarus, come out”. Then it returns to the mundane again, with Jesus telling them to untie poor Lazarus, all bound up with his funeral clothes.
I take something important from all of this. I take the fact that God understands my fears and tears. I also take that God not only suffers with me and those I see who are grieving but that he has acted to end all pain and even to end all death. I learn that all of this is done amid ordinary every day events, and is acted out in ordinary every day lives – like mine. I fear the loss of those close to me. I can cry, I can question God. This passage I think is very much for me. I feel the hope that this story brings.
I then turn to pondering how this hope works, and turn to Romans 6.10-11 “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” Now I would normally leave a passage like Romans 6 for a time when I can sit town and explore its complexities properly, in a study group perhaps. But it links so well with this story of Lazarus that I feel I need to consider it now.
Like Lazarus, my body is made by God my Creator but it is still fragile and very mortal. Bodies can be damaged, they get sick and they ultimately die. What Paul reminds me in Romans 6 is that God hasn’t forgotten that fact. God understands and joins me in my frailty so much that through Christ I know that the weakness of this mortal body is only a temporary state of affairs. God will continue to give me life, even if this body dies and is buried: Right through it all the power of the Spirit is living in me, giving me life… life for ever.
So both passages from the Bible, the story of Lazarus from John’s Gospel and the ideas of Paul from Romans 6, they both provide me with some simple facts:
1. The realities of pain, loss and death are not dodged by God
2. God understands my human condition better than I do myself
3. God enters into his own creation and through becoming human can overcome my human frailties, including death
4. God, through his Spirit can give me a taste of true and eternal life right now
I know all this but sometimes I still stumble around like Lazarus, all tied up and unable to live the new life I’ve been given. So, if you see me all caught up with worries or concerns, be Jesus for me, help untie me and let me go… and I’ll try and do the same for you!
Something unusual happened on Friday. At least it was unusual for me but it is all too frequent for so many people. On Friday I had to go to the doctors. I had a chest infection that was getting worse, and having had TB I need to be very careful about such things. So I went for a course of antibiotics to knock it on the head before it had the chance to become serious. The doctor I saw was really helpful but sadly she is leaving. However, the whole experience was very worrying. I had to phone at 8.30am to get an appointment, trying again and again before I eventually got through. I had to have have the confidence to keep trying and to say to myself that it was an emergency (only emergency cases are seen the same day). I was also fortunate enough to have consulted the Surgery website first and found the dedicated emergency appointment number, which apparently is not easy to find without internet access. All of this made me worry about the care of those who are not as able or as confident or as determined as me. How many people needing medical care give up before they get an appointment?
While trying to get through I also read the details on the website and was reminded, in no uncertain terms, that an appointment meant 10 minutes with a doctor and no more. My doctor was very late seeing me and obviously took the time that she needed with me and with each of her patients. But what about those patients who see doctors who stick to the rules? You would really have to be clear about your symptoms and be articulate enough to get them across quickly.
Again what about those who are hesitant, confused or embarrassed? What about the elderly people that I saw taking several minutes just to get into the consulting room? What about those with complicated illnesses or combinations of illnesses? My own wife has two serious medical conditions, one life threatening, but the doctor she saw would have put them both down to depression if she had not insisted that she be referred to a specialist.
I then compared that approach with the research that I keep seeing in journals about the complex nature of health, where mind and body work together in unique ways for health and ill health. All that without even touching the spiritual dimension of health. It seems that so much is being wasted by doctors giving quick fixes for patients who will have to keep coming back, rather than dealing with real health.
Rant over, I thought about how a family can be a place of health. On Mothering Sunday I started to think about how true Mothering differs from my less than wonderful observations on medical care.
I thought of ‘time’, not giving or receiving time, just sharing time with someone who cares. When thinking of a mother’s care I looked to Colossians chapter 3 and was reminded of how we are told:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3.12-15)
This all sounds very lovely. But, as anyone who has tried it will tell you, it is far from easy. It is so hard to clothe yourself with love, when those around you do not. Even when I do that perfect harmony is so often elusive. Even so, I can’t help thinking how much better our society would be if this advice was taken seriously, including how much better our medical provision could be. Our politicians, and medical professionals may not be Christians but they all have mothers. So why not use Mothering Sunday to encourage all the wonderful values associated with mothering? Why not apply those values not just as key foundations of family life but also as key foundations of any truly caring or Christian society?
Going back to the medical profession. There is so much stress and pressure. But I think these are being made worse by having the wrong priorities. To me medical priorities need to include compassion, kindness and all the other values set out in Colossians 3.
How can you truly care for someone in need if you have no compassion for them? Just think about the difference a little kindness can make? I was met with kindness from both the receptionist and the doctor. What a difference that makes to how confident we are in ourselves, and how well we can access the medical care on offer.
I often hear that faith is an impractical thing. But that could not be further from the truth. The values of my faith are deeply practical. They form solid foundations for families and relationships, if we let them. I know this to be true. I now need to have the confidence of my belief to offer these solutions as practical solutions in the world. I may seem mad. But I have seen these Godly, Mothering values applied in church schools, and I have seen the wonderful difference that they make to the well being of teachers and staff. And do you know what? – The grades were better too!
I know this is true. I know that these values work. But it is hard to keep confident in a world that is so often indifferent or hostile. Then I remember how Paul addresses the Colossians as “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved”. If I am loved by God that much and chosen then perhaps I can ask for the strength and confidence to share his wonderful pattern for this world?
The Samaritan woman (John 4.5-42) may not have been the most respectable of people (far from it) but she was very special. She was special as the perhaps first apostle sent out by Jesus to share his message. And that message? “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’ (John 4.23-25).
‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’, that is one of the most famous verses in the Bible, it feels mysterious and powerful, but what does it mean? I would love to have a nice simple answer, but I don’t. I have known that verse for many years now and I’m still puzzling away. I can’t give neat answers but I can invite you to join me in my puzzle.
I know that the God who is Spirit, is everywhere, in everything and above all things. This God is ‘he’ and ‘she’ because he made all things including male and female. I call God ‘he’ simply because as a man I can relate to God better that way. Anyway, the point is I think that God is more than any special place. Holy places are only holy if the God who is Spirit can be encountered there more easily than in other places. Old churches can therefore be special places but only when they are places where the God who is Spirit can be felt. That said this Spirit God can be worshipped anywhere not just in a temple or church.
God is in the trees, and streams, hills and level fields. God is in the city streets too. God is in all places if only we look hard enough. But as I said above, he is easier to recognise in some places. The understanding of God who is Spirit, seems to me to be more about experiencing God rather than about learning facts about him. A spirit can’t be touched or fixed in one place. God is Spirit and will blow where he wills.
Sometimes I will come into one of our wonderful churches and feel the God who is Spirit. I feel him in the air, in the light coming through the windows, in the stone, and in the earth beneath me. Indeed, before I lead worship I always pray that everyone will feel the presence of the God who is Spirit in the worship. Old sites of worship like these often seem to have prayer suffused in the very stones. Prayer and holiness can leave their mark on a place, like a bright dye of God’s presence indelibly marking our places of worship.
Some places are thin. Places where the God who is Spirit, and who is everywhere, can be experienced that little bit more easily. Churches should be such thin places, but so should many other places.
When I pray in a home I also pray that the Spirit may be felt in that place; that the Holy Spirit will guide all thoughts to Jesus: That that home may be a place of blessing to all who live there or enter that place. I see the light of the God who is Spirit coming into that home, pouring in through the windows, up through the floor and from the walls and ceiling. I pray that that home may be a place where Jesus is encountered like Jesus encountered that Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well. I pray that the presence of the God who is Spirit will drive out all evil and corruption from that home and keep safe all who live there.
I pray in the garden and in the countryside. I see the beauty of the growing and living things around me and I see the creativity of the God who is Spirit. I sit or stand and know that I am on holy ground. Any footpath or flowerbed can be a holy place; a place where the walls are thin and the Spirit can be felt. I love those moments, just as I love the created world and its Creator.
But I love it even more when I am granted the privilege of standing somewhere less beautiful and still feeling the close presence of the God who is Spirit. I have been in hospital wards and felt that presence so powerfully. Whether I was praying with someone or arguing about the news or football, sometimes the God who is Spirit just makes his presence felt. The God who is Spirit can do that, anywhere, anytime; a derelict and burnt out house or a rubbish dump can all be holy places for our God.
Sometimes, I can stand in the most holy and beautiful place, be it a church or open space, and feel nothing. All can be dark. All can feel empty, but that does not mean that the God who is Spirit is not there. Sometimes the ability to sense God’s presence is withdrawn. It happens. It is normal. It is then that I learn to trust but it can be hard to hold on in those times. Often it is only when the Spirit can be felt once again that it is clear that the God who is Spirit has always been there; unseen and unrecognised.
Sometimes the God who is Spirit is felt so strongly it is overwhelming. They can be times of healing and prophecy where the love and wisdom of God breaks through into this physical world in power. Healing and prophecy happen. We call them miracles but they are just the natural consequence of the overwhelming presence of the Spirit.
So God is Spirit and those who worship must worship in Spirit and in truth. And so I am sharing something of the Truth that I am puzzling over. I am trying to be honest as I share… as I try to be truthful and honest in my worship.
God is everywhere, God is here with me now. Through the Spirit, Jesus is here now, like he was with that Samaritan woman. I strain to hear what he is saying to me. I pause and listen. He tells me everything I ever did – it hurts and is wonderful both at the same time. I am being sent out again from this holy place to share what I’ve experienced of Jesus here. Again, just like that Samaritan woman.
The God who is Spirit is everywhere. The God who is Spirit is here.
Mine was a difficult birth, or so I’m told, I don’t remember much about it myself.
I obviously was reluctant to come into this world. The warmth, ease and comfort must have been too much. But whatever the reason I was a long time in coming. So long in fact that by the time I came into the world my poor Mam was exhausted with the pain and effort. So when the midwife lifted me up and said, look Mrs. Tuffnell you’ve got a beautiful baby boy, my Mam snapped back, “I don’t care if its a *** rabbit so long as its out!”.
Knowing that, the thought of me going back in again would probably kill my Mam on the spot. So I can understand poor Nicodemus’ alarm and confusion in John 3, I really can. He sounds a little stupid today, we have heard of being born again, and know it to be figurative not literal. But what would we have thought talking late in the night with this amazing but weird teacher? I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have done any better.
The important thing, is not that Nicodemus didn’t understand Jesus. The important point is that Nicodemus obviously went away and pondered all that he had seen, heard and felt in Jesus’ presence, and was changed. I know Nicodemus was changed because he was there with Joseph of Arimathea caring for Jesus’ body after the crucifixion (John 19).
So are you ever puzzled by something God says or does? Do you ever get confused by a Bible passage? Well don’t worry you are in good company, you are not alone. Jesus is not always clear and education doesn’t always help. Think of Nicodemus, he was very well educated. Sometimes study helps us to understand the will of God but often a good religious education just allows us to bluff a little better.
No, Nichodemus tells me that some times I need to spend time thinking and praying about what I have seen or heard. I need to go back to my Bible and commentaries and try and make sense of it all, but all the time having faith that Jesus is right even if I don’t understand him.
That is what Jesus’ mother did when Jesus did something strange, she “pondered all these things in her heart” (Luke 2.19). (We’re never told whether Mary had an easy birth with her first born. Maybe Jesus too was slow to arrive and maybe she snapped at Joseph, “I don’t care if its a rabbit so long as its out!” Some things are just not recorded, all we do know is that she pondered and wondered at all that God was doing through her.)
Nicodemus seems to have done the same. He left Jesus confused but no less convinced that this was someone sent by God. He seems to have pondered all these things in his heart too.
I need to ponder too, so I suspect do you.
I need to ponder when I see good people suffer, or when I see people indifferent to the offer of love from God. Like Nicodemus, I can get so confused. I wonder about so many things. But also like Nicodemus and Mary, I know that Jesus is special. I know that Jesus is the one sent by God to save this world, and all in it. Like Nicodemus, I know that faith is the key. I know the truth of those words:
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3.16 & 17).
These are some of the first words of the Bible that I ever heard and I am still pondering them. I have pondered these words, “God so loved the world” and I realised that my faith needed to include caring for this world, it’s fish and birds and animals and people – if God loved them so much how could I not care? That in turn continues to lead me to all sorts of interesting places – but that is for another day.
Today I need to ponder the words of the Bible. Spend time with them, roll them around in my mouth, tasking them. I need to let the Spirit in to guide me. I need to be open to whatever the Spirit intends to reveal to me. That is what Nicodemus did and he did the unthinkable – he broke with the powerful Jewish council and helped to bury Jesus. He is mentioned by name, perhaps because he was well known to the believers, so it is entirely possible that Nicodemus stuck his neck out even further and after Jesus’ resurrection became one of the first Christians.
Who knows? But I do know the power of that pondering the words of Scripture such as these. Of being open to letting the Spirit guide me. I recommend it to you. But beware! Beware because the Spirit may well reveal something you would rather not know. I have learned that I enter God’s presence with no guarantees. God will say and do and reveal whatever he wants, and it may upset me.
I once was absolutely convinced that only men could be ministers. But God changed all that. I was comfortable where I was. Changing that idea meant that I was no longer the welcome friend to some people that I once was. I was desperate to believe in a literal 7 day creation, but Scripture and the Spirit wouldn’t let me. This one belief was the real test of orthodoxy, I wanted to be part of that club, but I was not allowed.
So beware! Your most cherished certainties could be overturned. But still I believe there is no better way, indeed there is no other way, than to ponder the words of Scripture and let God’s Spirit guide me.
There is another important point here to learn from Nicodemus – honesty. Nicodemus wasn’t afraid to seem stupid – he didn’t understand Jesus so he said so. He could have nodded wisely. He could also have said something like, “Wise words teacher”. But what good would that have done? He didn’t understand, he wanted to understand, so he admitted his ignorance. So when I ponder I pray that I can be honest enough with myself and God to own up to my ignorance too.
I’ll leave that thought there. There are hundreds of messages that can be inspired by John 3 alone, but not for now.
For now, I want to focus on that idea of pondering and wondering about life and faith, while open to the work of the Spirit. If you’ve got this far, please take to heart the power of this practice of pondering all these things in your heart.
Perhaps there is something that you need to ponder in your heart this Lent? Are there passages of the Bible that puzzle you? Are there world events or people that confuse? Then perhaps your Lenten discipline should include setting aside time to ponder and explore them?
To end, something from one of the great Classics of literature to ponder:
“We’ll be Friends Forever, won’t we, Pooh?’ asked Piglet.
Even longer,’ Pooh answered.”
(Winnie-the-Pooh, AA Milne)
Yesterday, I met with my ministry team: We were served some amazing home made biscuits – thanks Gerald – Sue was ‘good’ and refused because she is on a diet – I was bad, I waved one in front of her, tempting her.
Now this was all part of wider joking around. I wouldn’t really want to lead her away from her commitment to her diet. But the reason for mentioning this story is because this is what tends to come to mind about when we hear the word “tempt” or “temptation”. Temptation is so easily caught up with silly almost irrelevant things, a slice of cake or one more beer.
That is how the first of Jesus’ temptations in the desert could seem (Matthew 4.1-11). The temptation to to turn a stone into bread. Jesus was hungry so what could be wrong with a little bread? Cake, well cake would be an indulgence so obviously he shouldn’t turn a rock into cake, but bread is just the mundane staple – no harm there surely? The Devil was right, there was no harm with Jesus having some bread at the end of his fast. It was the temptation to misuse God’s gifts to him, it was also the temptation to look to earthly things to satisfy heavenly, spiritual needs – that was the problem.
You and I are very unlikely to be tempted to work a miracle for food (that said I wish I had a £1 for every time someone joked at a party about me to turning water into wine!). But this and the other temptations are about Jesus being offered an alternative, simpler, easier and much less painful way to make a difference.
The Devil tempted Jesus and he failed. But he hasn’t given up. After all, just because Jesus was too strong from him, that doesn’t mean that he can’t have a go at each of us. I’m not God, I’m not even that special, so I can see the Devil licking his lips at easy meat like me, … and you too. He’s right as well. I think I’m smart but I’m not really that bright. Realistically, I’m not going to spot the trap every time. At some point I’ll only see the reasonable sounding argument and wonder happily off the path Jesus has put me on. The Devil’s so much brighter and more cunning than us that he can pick us off easily, one by one. Part of us even quite likes to be led astray. It’s like Steve Turner’s poem, “Just One More Time”:
Just One More Time – Steve Turner
Lead me into temptations
just one more time.
Lead me up close
beyond my control.
Lead me then leave me.
Deliver me from escape,
increase my ignorance,
limit my will.
Make me the victim of
Leave me ’til sin
is the only way out,
give me a taste of
what to avoid.
Leave me ’til it’s
yet guilt floods me
like a chill.
Then lead me back
just one more time.
Left there I’ve no chance, I’ve had it. I hear Private Frazer, the undertaker in Dad’s Army, saying, “We’re doomed… doomed!” Doomed I would be too, if that was the end of the story. But it isn’t. Unlike Jesus I’m not left to face temptation on my own. I have the Holy Spirit living within me giving me all the heavenly resources that were available to Jesus out in that desert.
I have the Spirit living in me to guide me and lead me ever more into the life I should be living. That was one of the promises God made at my baptism, to send his Holy Spirit to be part of me for ever. That is one of the wonderful gifts given to all of God’s baptised children.
Even so the temptations that come can be so subtle. They can involve keeping something that I shouldn’t or being a little bit clever with my expenses – surely, I’m worth it after all! The whispering goes on… “no one will ever know”, “everyone does it”, “you’re an idiot if you don’t help yourself to what you’re entitle to”. “It’s not like your claiming £1,000s for a duck pond or for a second home like those MPs”. The whispering goes on some more, “it’s only tax, everyone fiddles their tax, … just a little bit … it’s not stealing, … not really”.
What ever it is, everyone fails sometime, and I’m no exception. That is another difference between me and Jesus. Jesus came so that when we fail we can be forgiven. I can fail and the Spirit will heal me again. Indeed, that is the Christian way of life – I fail, I say sorry, I’m forgiven, I’m healed, I fail again… Indeed, I’ve found that each time I fail to resist temptation the Spirit uses my failure as an opportunity for I to grow and become more godlike.
There’s a saying, “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”. Well I’ve found that it can be the other way around, “Blessed if you do, and blessed if you don’t”. The Spirit is in me so each time I listen to him I resist temptation and am blessed with a closer walk with God. The Spirit is in me so each time I fall to temptation I can be forgiven, healed of any spiritual hurt I’ve caused, and blessed with a closer walk with God.
That is what is so special about the Christian way of life. Through Jesus God is real and present and powerful, so powerful that I am “Blessed if I do, and blessed if I don’t”.
So, when I recognise a temptation in time to stop, I smile, laugh at the Devil, and know that I’ve been blessed.
When I realise that I’ve fallen to temptation again, I smile, laugh at the Devil, say sorry to God, feel the healing power of the Spirit, and know that I’ve been blessed.
Blessed if you do, and blessed if you don’t – How good is that!?
I’ve been looking at Matthew 17.1-9, and it is clear to me that the Transfiguration is the turning point of Jesus story. Before going up that mountain Jesus was an itinerant preacher and healer, with no obvious destination. Yes, he has just told his disciples that he will be betrayed, suffer and die, but this walk up the mountain with Peter, James and John is the pivot point before Jesus is ready to head towards Jerusalem and those terrible events. When Jesus comes down again he is heading for Jerusalem, and a showdown with the authorities that will lead to the cross. That is why this reading is so important right now, just before the start of Lent.
The story of the Transfiguration is about change. Jesus’ appearance changes as he is suddenly revealed in his heavenly glory, and there is a real change in direction for his mission.
Now this is a time of change for the Church too. Our world has changed and is continuing to change at an incredible rate. There are social changes. There is now far greater equality of the sexes and races than when I was a young child. Here in the UK we have had a woman Prime Minister and over in the USA a man of colour has become President. Even the dear old Church of England now has women priests and I am very privelidged to work with Karen and Sue (pictures below):
There have been huge technological changes, with mobile phones moving from being the size of a brick and only capable of being used as a phone to the latest smartphones that we now have.
So much change and so often the church is like a rabbit caught in the headlights. We have access to the one who made everything; the source of all Truth and Wisdom; the one who gives meaning to everything, yet we so often respond with fear and anger to changes in the world rather than offer a lead. What is wrong with us?
We are not listening to the prophetic power of the Spirit, we are not offering a lead, we are running behind. We are offering opinions and arguments way after everyone else made their decisions and moved on. But we as Christians are so divided on almost every issue. How can we offer a lead? We still have about a quarter of the Church of England that cannot accept women priests, never mind women bishops. So how can we speak to our world words of wisdom?
But I’m wondering whether the Spirit has not given us one voice for a purpose. We still have the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, self-control etc. (Galatians 5.22-23). Perhaps what we are called to do is to show the world how to deal with difficult issues? Perhaps we are to show the world that there is a better way to disagree that to fight? Perhaps, we can love our enemies who argue with us? We can still care and love those with whom we don’t agree. I can disagree with someone who cannot accept women priests or bishops, but I should never let that descend into ridicule and hate.
If I opened a debate about homosexuality, I know from talking to the people in my church that there would be disagreement. This debate is coming to our church, so let’s learn from our mistakes over the ordination of women. Don’t let the Devil lead us into hatred and rash words. We have been blessed with a second chance to show the world how we can disagree in love.
You see, I don’t think that we have failed by not leading the way for our country. I think that we have failed to live out our Christian faith. We have been so caught up with our opinion of what is right or wrong and we have been so frightened of change that we have shown our country a gospel of hate, and malice and deceit!
What do we do about our failure, our sin? Easy, we return to the Gospel. We look at the gospel values, those fruits of the Spirit, we pray, we listen to the Spirit, we listen to each other, we pray some more, perhaps we say a little about what we think the Spirit wants, and we listen some more.
I was reading yesterday in Church Times that the Church of England needs radical change if it is to have any hope of a future. I agree, but not with all the fine looking plans for re-organisation. That is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We need radical change. We need to become a Church of Christians who live the Gospel and we need to start at the heart of how we make decisions. We need to put love back, we need to have a beating heart of flesh not a heart of stone.
The Bible is a radical book, which with the inspiration of the Spirit can give us all the guidance we need. So why not turn to it for inspiration about how we are to live each moment on into the future?
God has given us all we need.
The Gospel is attractive if we don’t mess with it.
So let’s start trusting our God, get on with living as the Spirit directs, and trust the Spirit to guide us into all truth.