Saturday, 20 February 2016

Foxes and Hens

Philippians 3: 18-19For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly...

 Luke 3:31-32 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work". 

Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent: Foxes and Hens.

I wonder if you are familiar with the fable often read in childhood: The Sly Fox and the Little Red Hen?

It was a well-loved Ladybird book and today will set you back nearly £10 on eBay.
It told the story of how the sly fox coaxed the little red hen out of her hidey-hole in the woods and caught her in a bag from where he planned to take her home and cook her for supper.
But on the way he fell asleep and she hopped out, filled the bag instead with stones and toddled off home.
The fox woke up, picked up the heavy bag and proceeded to his house where he stoked up a big fire, above which boiled a large pot of water.
As the stones, and not the hen, fell into the pot, boiling water splashed out over the fox and killed him outright.

Today’s gospel is about a sly fox and a hen – the sly fox is Herod Antipas, he who had John the Baptist killed and who ‘desired to see Jesus’ in Luke 9:9.
The hen, you might be surprised to learn, is Christ.
However people might try to picture God, whether as a bright light, or a kindly old man, or as glorious King, perhaps not many will come up with the image of a hen.
A hen is not memorable, just ordinary, small; trying to keep her chicks safe, waddling after them when they go astray and squawking at predators.
Christ the mother hen, who wants only to round up her children and hide them under her maternal wing, especially after they’ve wandered off…

Page One. Trouble in the text.
Jesus is tempted to avoid the cross.
Today on this second Sunday in Lent, we see Jesus being tempted to avoid the cross.
We were told at the end of last Sunday’s gospel that the Devil left him ‘till an opportune time’ (Luke 4:13).
Here, it seems, is just that time.
His temptation comes in the form of what initially seems like a sympathetic warning from the Pharisees, of all people.
‘At that very hour, some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you”.’
Jesus’ reply is curt – even rude.
‘”That fox!”’
The advice of the Pharisees is merely a temptation to avoid the cross.
Go away and hide somewhere, is what they are really saying.
They cannot understand that Jesus deliberately chooses the way of the cross.
He says ‘today, tomorrow and the next day I must be on my way’, and immediately mentions his destination – Jerusalem.
In other words, his destination is the cross and his way is the way of the cross.
It was the most difficult thing to choose the cross – everyone was counseling against it.
The disciples didn’t understand; the Pharisees said flee; Herod is simply a voyeur, and a violent man.
Yet though Jesus is clear about his mission, his rejection by Israel pains him.
He laments over Jerusalem, capital city of the chosen nation that is about to crucify its long awaited Messiah…
‘”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.”’
Jesus’ path is the hardest one, filled with deep frustration, sadness and a sense of missed opportunity.
Yet he cannot force a following – this is the theological conundrum of free will.
We feel his loneliness, his humanity, his struggle, as he is tempted to avoid the cross.

Page Two. Trouble for us.
We are tempted to avoid the cross.
Are we, too, tempted to avoid the cross?
If we are tempted to avoid the cross, how does this play out?
Let’s look at Paul, because he has a lament too, in our reading from Philippians.
He laments those who live as enemies of the cross of Christ.
‘I have often told you of them’, he says; ‘and now I tell you even with tears’ (Phil. 3:18).
Who are these people who live as enemies of the cross?
It’s tempting (excuse the pun) to see them as unbelievers – we live the way of the cross, and those outside the church do not.
But the temptation to avoid the cross is maybe a bit more insidious than that for us believers.
Because the way of the cross is not particularly attractive.
The way of the cross involves my dying to self, and that’s never comfortable.
The way of the cross is deeply contrary to much of what passes for modern life today.
The ways we’re conditioned to think and behave in society reveal a deep propensity in us to avoid the way of the cross.
Take an average Saturday Colour Supplement – such as the one we bought over half term – I think it was the Guardian – but the Times or Telegraph would be no different.
What are the themes?
Just at a glance, looking at the 13th February edition, we have an article about finding romance on specialist dating sites; an article about living with the guilt of having been the mother of a mass murderer; an article about the latest adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which doesn’t refer once to any of the spiritual themes; a piece from a stay at home mother who feels trapped and one form a woman who went on a trip to visit all her old boyfriends; 4 pages on property, 6 on travel and ten devoted to food.
‘Their god is their belly’, says Paul.
Nothing, in short, on the spiritual life; nothing about the inner life or how to develop it in humility, truth or self sacrificing love.
We cannot be unaffected by this complete emphasis on what Paul calls ‘earthly things’.
Of course we need to eat, we sometimes travel, we all look for love, but we have neglected the spiritual, even though ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (Phil. 3:20) from where we expect a Saviour.
If we truly expected a Saviour to show up this morning, in the midst of our worship, would we be half attentive, would we have a hand casually in the pocket as we stood to sing…?
We have neglected the spiritual; we have been tempted to avoid the cross.

Page 3. Grace in the text.
The way of the cross is the only way.
So we return to Jesus – walking that literal and figurative path that we also share at Lent.
He has set his mind towards Jerusalem, and he keeps faithful to it.
He is the mother hen who, even when her chicks stray, goes after them and brings them back.
In a hot Middle Eastern culture, fires were commonplace.
It sometimes happened that in the fire ripping through the buildings, a mother hen would hide her chicks under the protection of their wings, and in the resulting smoke, she would die, but her chicks would survive.
It is not for nothing that Christ compares himself to a hen
The abiding image of these verses in Luke is of Jesus moving forward towards Jerusalem, towards the cross.
He knows that the way of the cross is the only way.
He hears from either side the voices of those who think they know a better way: avoid the pain; go into hiding; turn these stones into bread; impress us with a miracle.
But the way of the cross is the only way.
It’s the way God redeems us, and redeems everything that’s gone wrong for us.
Jesus holds fast to it and blazes a trail, as it were.
The long days of fasting in the wilderness have developed in him a quick ear for God’s voice, and the habits needed to obey that voice.
He doesn’t put a foot wrong along that dusty, bumpy, hot and crowded road to Jerusalem.
In fact four chapters back, in Luke 9:51 we already have a very revealing verse for Jesus’ frame of mind here.
It says, he set his face towards Jerusalem – the verb is to resolutely decide on something and not be dissuaded from one’s end.
We might say he steeled himself for the journey (the Message) or that his face was set like flint (cf. Isaiah 50:7).
Flint is a hard material, so hard that other things, when hitting into it, are set on fire.
Jesus journey to the cross is tough, and in it he shows us his tough love.
And he never loses hope.
His last words over Jerusalem hint at hope.
Yes, they have missed their Messiah, but there will come a day when they will say, miraculously, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (verse 35).
Salvation history is in his hands, and is achieved through the way of the cross.

Page 4. Grace for us.
We can continue on the Way because of Jesus.
As we look around the world this Lent, God reminds us that salvation history is in his hands.
We keep on going on the way whenever we come to church together to share, to pray, to sing, to gather around the Word and around the Lord’s Table.
God keeps us going because God has provided the way by reconciling the world to himself on the cross.
Even when we look at the news and wonder what will come of war and displacements of peoples, referenda on the EU and the various scandals that plague our public life, especially those involving vulnerable children and those whom society has forgotten.
The way of the cross gives us hope.
Jesus did not give up – he kept going so that we could keep going.
Thanks be to God who keeps us on the way – the way of the cross.
And to return to the Ladybird tale where we began…
Avoid the crafty foxes and snuggle up under the mother hen.


(Initial idea from The Word is very near you, John Pridmore.
Structure from The Four Pages of the Sermon, Paul Scott Wilson). 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

I closed my eyes, pulled back the curtain...

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

2 Corinthians 3:18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Luke 9:28 - 9 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 

The first line of a popular song from the Musical Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat, goes like this:
“I closed my eyes/pulled back the curtain/to see for certain/what I thought I knew…”
Today’s Gospel shows us the peeling back of a curtain between earth and heaven as Jesus is revealed in all his glory on the Mount of Transfiguration.
It’s a glimpse of glory, which is very tantalizing.

We’ll firstly take a look at the word GLORY, then have a digression on the difficulty of imagining Eternal Life and thirdly, we’ll ask where in our lives do we experience glory?

1. Glory is a fascinating topic in Scripture – I wonder what images the word conjures up for you?
Perhaps something akin to a bright light, something white and blinding, maybe images of a coronation service…certainly not an every day occurrence.
The Westminster Catechism talks of glory: to the question: ‘What is the chief end of man?’ the answer goes: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, a Sunday all about GLORY.
It’s a Sunday when we think of Jesus, an otherwise ordinary looking man, who had no particular physical attractiveness, and who experienced all the common emotions and troubles known to humankind, being suddenly revealed to be who he truly was, behind the curtain (so to speak).

The word ‘glory’ in Greek is doxa, from where we get our word ‘doxology’.
A doxology is what we say after a psalm: ‘Glory to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Amen’.
Saying a doxology is a little repetitive reminder that despite all appearances to the contrary, the glory of God is his very nature, and that nature is something we can fully rely on to be real.

‘Glory’ in the Old Testament has a special word: Shekinah.
The Shekinah of God was His manifest presence in a local place, like the Temple.
It was said that when Moses came down from his mountain top experience, after receiving the 10 commandments, that his face shone with glory, the glory of having been in the presence of God.
The glory shining in his face was so bright he had to put a veil over it when he talked with ordinary people; otherwise they could not bear to look at it.

On Transfiguration Sunday we see Jesus revealed for a moment in all his true glory.
It’s a moment to savour, because soon we will enter Lent and it will be a while before the resurrection glory of Easter Day dawns (though let’s not forget that every Sunday is a resurrection morning really).

We can picture the mountain top scene perhaps:
Jesus has taken his closest three friends up the mountain to pray.
Can you imagine going up a mountain with Jesus to share a time of prayer?
It would be pretty special.
While he was praying the appearance of his face changed and suddenly his clothes became dazzling white.

Now strange things can happen at the top of mountains.
There’s a lot of cloud up there, the weather might be unpredictable, the atmosphere might be a bit rarified; you might be worn out from the climb…
Can you really believe your eyes as Jesus’ appearance begins to change – is that the sun bursting through – or just Jesus getting whiter and whiter till you can hardly look,
As the curtain is peeled back for a moment….
…..the curtain that separates this age from the age to come?

2. A little digression on the nature of the afterlife…

We have problems in our language describing the afterlife/heaven/eternal life etc.
We think we live here now, then we’ll progress to something that comes after.
We struggle when we use time-related words.
But another way to think of it, is that Life Eternal is present alongside ours and that’s possibly much more helpful.

There’s a scene from the Harry Potter movies where Harry sees his godfather die in a battle against the forces of evil.
In the film the sequence is slowed; in slow motion you see the fatal blow fall on the godfather, Sirius; you see him stop for a moment, fall backwards slowly, and a curtain appears – a very flimsy curtain - and he falls through it and into the other side, wherever that is…

Sirius falls through the curtain...
Granted it's separate from 
Harry, in that Harry is distraught and cannot see his godfather anymore; but in fact he is apparently only on the other side of the curtain…
That’s a good visual image of Life Eternal being just out of sight, NEXT to ours…

Or imagine you’re at a theatre, and the scenery is stacked up one screen behind the other, each screen ready to be brought out at the right time.
As the scene changes, the scenery that you can see now, is lifted for a moment to reveal something much more spectacular behind it.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, the reality behind the ordinary mountain walk is suddenly revealed, and the disciples ‘see’ the Old Testament prophets alongside the exalted Son of God, talking with him about his forthcoming death.

They suddenly see reality. And NOTE: when this happened they were praying.

3. So finally, when have you suddenly glimpsed spiritual reality right in your midst?
Sometimes it’s at our most testing moments that we see the reality behind the curtain…
Moments when I have glimpsed the glory have often been at funerals, or with the bereaved who are reaching out to God; as well as the moment when couples make their wedding vows, or a baby is christened, or I’m singing an uplifting hymn, or sitting in silence in the presence of a flickering candle….you will have your own moments.
Be encouraged that probably the times when we’re most likely to glimpse the glory poking through the curtain are the hard times – so we mustn’t lose heart.
Suffering leads to glory if we let it.
Paul says that we reflect the glory as we are being made into God’s likeness,
That’s a huge privilege and also a challenge.
That challenge is that the transformation he speaks of needs our co-operation.
Lent is a perfect time to reassess this; to reassess our spiritual lives, our walk with Christ.
The Lent Course a perfect format in which to be open to each other in power of the Spirit.
But if you can’t come to the Lent Course, find a way to make room for Christ, especially in your prayer life this Lent.
Is there a book, a task, a daily discipline that you can practice to deepen your relationship with Christ?

Can I put in a plug for not just the usual ‘I’m giving up chocolate’?
There’s nothing wrong with a type of fast, but the reason for doing it is to draw nearer to God.
In Lent we pray for the grace to catch the glimpses of glory.

"I closed my eyes/pulled back the curtain/to see for certain/what I thought I knew..."