Please note that Podcast Garden have recently changed their backup location. If you think there should be a podcast (only for sermons from 2014 onwards) and there is not, you can still listen by clicking here

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Tempted and Fallen

This was prepared before the dreadful earthquake in Japan. I did sort-of mention it: "What if the temptation had been for the earthquake not to happen.....?"

The first reading today was about a man, and a woman and God. The man and the woman don't have names – later on, they are called Adam and Eve, but at this stage they don't need names. They are just Man and Woman. They are the only Man and Woman that exist – God hasn't made any more, yet – so they don't need names. Man can just go, “Oi, you!” and Woman will know he's talking to her.

God has made the Man and the Woman, and put them in a garden, where there is plenty of food to eat for the picking of it. It's lovely and warm, so they don't need clothes, and in fact they are so comfortable with themselves and with God that they don't want clothes. There are animals to be cared for,and crops to be tended, but the work is easy and pleasurable. And all the fruit in the garden is theirs, except for one tree,which God has told them is poisonous. If they eat the fruit of this tree, God said, they'll die.

Well, so far, so good. But at this point, enter another player. The serpent. Now, the Serpent is God's enemy, but the Man and the Woman don't know that. They think the Serpent is just another animal. Now Serpent comes and chats to Woman.

“Nice pomegranate you've got there!”

“Mmm, yes,” says Woman.

“Look at that fruit on that tree over there, though,” says Serpent. “That looks well tasty!”

“Yes, but it's poisonous!” explains Woman. “God said that if we ate it, we'd die, so we're keeping well clear of it!”

“Oh rubbish!” says Serpent. “God's stringing you a line! It's not poisonous at all. Thing is, if you eat it, you'll be just like God, and know good and evil. God doesn't want you to eat it, because God doesn't want any rivals! Go on, have a bite! You won't regret it!”

So Woman has another look at the tree, and sees that the fruit is red and ripe and smells tempting, so she cautiously stretches out her hand and grabs the fruit, and, ever so tentatively, takes a tiny bite. Mmm, it is good!

So she calls to Man, “Oi, you!”

“Mm-hmmm,” calls Man, looking up from the game he was playing with his dogs. “What is it?”

“Come and try this fruit,” says Woman, and explains how the Serpent had said that God had been stringing them a line, and how good the fruit tasted. So Man decides to have a piece himself.

But it's coming on to evening, and at evening, God usually comes and walks in the garden, and Man and Woman usually come and share their day. But tonight, somehow, they don't feel like chatting to God. And those bodies, the bodies they'd enjoyed so much, suddenly feel like they want to be kept private. They look at one another, and both retreat, silently, into the far depths of the garden, grabbing some fig leaves to make coverings for themselves.

Presently, God comes looking for them. “What's up? Why are you hiding?”

“Well,” goes Man, “I didn't want to face you, 'cos I was naked.”

“Naked?” says God. “Naked? Who told you you were naked? You've been eating that fruit I told you was poisonous, haven't you?”

“Well, er, um.” Man wriggles. “It wasn't my fault. That one, the Woman you gave me. She said to eat it, so I did. Wasn't my fault at all. You can't blame me!”

So God looks at Woman, and says, “Is this true? Did you give him the fruit?”

Woman goes scarlet. “Well, it was Serpent. He said you, well, that the fruit wasn't poisonous.”

But, of course, the fruit had been poisonous It wasn't that it gave Man and Woman a tummyache or the runs; it poisoned their whole relationship with God. They couldn't stay in God's garden any more. Serpent was going to have to crawl on his belly from now on, and everyone, almost, would be afraid of him. Woman was going to have awful trouble having babies, and Man was going to find making a living difficult.

But God did show them how to make warm clothes for themselves, and didn't abandon them forever, even though, from that time forth, they weren't really comfortable with God.

Well, that's the story, then, that the Israelites used to explain why human beings find it so very difficult to be God's people and to do God's will. And it shows how first the Woman and then the Man were tempted, and fell.

They fell. But Jesus resisted temptation. You may remember that he was baptised, and there was the voice from heaven that said “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And then Jesus went off into the desert for six weeks or so, to come to terms with exactly Who he was, and to discover the exact nature of his divine powers.

I often think that what Jesus was tempted to do was to behave as though he were Harry Potter – to misuse his divine powers for his own comfort and safety.

It must have been so insidious, mustn't it? "Are you really the Son of God? Why don't you prove it by making these stones bread? You're very hungry, aren't you? If you're the Son of God, you can do anything you like, can't you? Surely you can make these stones into bread? But perhaps you aren't the Son of God, after all...." And so it would have gone on and on and on.

But Jesus resisted. The way the gospel-writers tell it, you would think he just waved his hand and shook his head and said, “No, man shall not live by bread alone!” But that wouldn't have been temptation. You know what it's like when you're tempted to do something you ought not – the longing can become more and more intense. There are times when you think, Hmm, that'd be nice, but then you think, naaa, not right, and put it behind you; but other times when you have to really, really struggle to put it behind you. “If you are the Son of God....”

The view from the pinnacle of the Temple. So high up.... by their standards,
like the top of the Canary Wharf tower would be to us. "Go on then – you're the Son of God, aren't you? Throw yourself down – your God will protect you!" The temptation is to show off, to use his powers like magic. Yes, God would have rescued him, but: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” That's not what it's about. That would have been showing off. That would have been misusing his divine powers for something rather spectacular.

Jesus was also tempted with riches and power beyond his wildest dreams – at that, beyond our wildest dreams, if only he would worship the enemy. We can sympathise with this particular temptation; I'm sure we all would love to be rich and powerful! But for Jesus, it must have been particularly subtle – it would help him do the work he'd been sent to do! Could he fulfil his mission without riches and power? What was being God's beloved son all about, anyway? Would it be possible to spread the message that he was beginning to realise he had to spread if he was going to spend his life in an obscure and dusty part of the Roman empire? And again, after prayer and wrestling with it, he finds the answer: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Let the riches and power look after themselves; the important thing was to serve God. If that is right, the rest would follow.

You may remember that Jesus was similarly tempted on the Cross, he could have called down the legions from heaven to rescue him. But he chose not to. It wasn't about spectacular powers – often, when Jesus did miracles, he asked people not to tell anybody. He didn't want to be spectacular. He'd learnt that his mission was to the people of Israel, probably even just the people of Galilee – and the occasional outsider who needed him, like the Syro-Phoenician woman, or the Roman centurion – and anything more than that was up to his heavenly Father.

And, obviously, if the "anything more" hadn't happened, we wouldn't be here this morning! But, at the time, that wasn't Jesus' business. His business, as he told us, was to do the work of his Father in Heaven – and that work, for now, was to be an itinerant preacher and healer, but not trying deliberately to call attention to himself.

St Paul deliberately contrasts Jesus with the first Man, Adam: “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ all are made alive.” Jesus, by resisting temptation, balanced out the first Man and Woman's failure to resist. Jesus, we believe, paid the penalty on the Cross for humanity's failure to resist the lures of the evil one; for our failure to live as God's people should; for our failure to live as God's people. And because of that, we shall all live.

Because, in the end, that's what it's about. Not what we do or don't do – that's just petty details. But are we going to be God's person, or are we not?

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Ash Wednesday 2011

So here we are at the beginning of another Lent. We are having a rather traditional penitential liturgy, closing with the Imposition of Ashes, for those who want. A sign of penitence, of repentance.

So what is it all about? Is it all solemn and penitential? Should Lent be a joyless, miserable few weeks? It certainly has form for being just that. I can't find my copy to quote exactly, but back at the turn of the last century, children in a vicarage family dreaded Lent: it was assumed that nobody would want to eat cakes, sweets or jam, so these were not served, and for small children it seemed a dreadfully long time! And on the one, memorable, occasion they were allowed to accept an invitation to a party in Lent, they were reminded that they should only eat bread and butter – and were somewhat at a loss as to what to do when they found it was sprinkled with hundreds-and-thousands, as was often the custom at parties in those days! The sausage rolls and mini-pizzas that would have saved them at a party today were unknown then!

More recently, I had a cousin whose birthday normally falls in Lent, and I gather her father didn't really like her to have a party until Easter was safely over. And when Robert and I were married, also in Lent, my mother was not at all sure whether we should have flowers or not!

You'll see no flowers here today, nor will you until Easter Day. That's a legacy of our Anglican roots – no Anglican church will have flowers now, or at least not on Sundays, until Easter. It is, apparently, fine for weddings and funerals, but you don't keep them the way you normally would.

And in those churches where they change colours according to the seasons, the cloths and the clergy's stoles will be changed from the green of Ordinary Time to the purple of Lent and Advent.

Even today people still give things up for Lent; a friend of mine, who is not a Christian, nevertheless doesn't eat chocolate during Lent as a minor act of self-discipline. Actually, given that we are competing in France in a couple of weeks and both of us find chocolate one of the best ways to avoid a serious adrenaline crash, it will be a rather more serious deprivation this year, I suspect! Other people give up other things – booze, for instance, and some friends are giving up their social networking for Lent – Twitter, for instance, or Facebook.

But just giving things up is often not enough. When we were children, we were never allowed to give up anything for Lent unless we saved the money we would otherwise have spent and gave it to charity. And if you give up going on a social network, what do you do with the time? Do you really spend it practising the presence of God, or does it get frittered away playing Solitaire or something similar? I know which it would be if I tried doing that!

But should Lent be a dreary, solemn time, with an emphasis on the negative? I think not. Sometimes people take on something extra during Lent. The classic, of course, is the Lent Study Group, but there are other things. Some people make a point of reading a book about God, or about people's experiences and history with God, during Lent. Others might make a point of doing something for other people – going round and visiting people from church that perhaps they haven't visited for ages. If you are on bad terms with someone, Lent is a terrific time to put things right. Or you might make a point, as I do some years, of finding something to be thankful for each day.

But what, then, about all this solemn penitential stuff we're going to do in a minute? It's easy enough to think of it as miserable; as meaning we ought to be unhappy about being such dreadful people, and so on. But I don't think it's meant to mean that.

It is, I think, about making a fresh start, about preparing for Lent. Back in the day, people used to go to confession on Shrove Tuesday, to be shriven of their sins, so that they could start Lent right with God. What, after all, could be nicer, after all, than being right with God, than knowing you are right with God, that you are forgiven, that you are loved?

Confession isn't really about telling God the nasty things you've done, said or thought. It can involve that, of course, but I think it's deeper than that – it's about facing up to the fact that you are the sort of person who can say, do our think such things: I have to face up to the fact that I am the sort of person who will snap at her family, given the slightest excuse to do so, or that I tend to be very greedy and lazy, as you can doubtless tell just by looking! But without God's help I shall always be these things. God knows what I'm like – it's no surprise to Him. But I need to face up to the fact that I'm like that, and ask God to help me change.

And, of course, we need to let go of anything someone else has done that has hurt us, to forgive them. And that can be horrendously difficult, too, especially if you're still angry at them. Again, it's not really something you can do by yourself – you need God's help to do it. God can take the anger and the hurt and even the hatred, and transform it – but you have to be willing to give it to him, and sometimes you have to start by asking for help to make you willing to let go of it! That's all part of confession.

And sometimes, it's God himself who we need to forgive. Which sounds awful, but what about those times when something awful happens and we don't know why? Think of the people of Christchurch, New Zealand this Lent – I wonder how many are angry with God because of the earthquake that has destroyed their Cathedral and may well have destroyed their homes, or their loved ones. I know there have been times in my life when bad things have happened, and I've been very angry with God. Who, thankfully, doesn't mind – admitting our anger is, as always, part of confession.

And sometimes, of course, it's ourselves we need to forgive. We find it very hard to accept we are the kind of person who can snap at others, or who can waste a lot of money in the shops, or on on-line gambling sites, and when we catch ourselves doing something like that, we feel we've let ourselves down, and we find it very hard to put it behind us and allow God to help us carry on. Again, admitting that is part of confession.

The second part, the repentance, isn't just about saying “Sorry” to God, although that's where it starts. It's about turning right round, and going God's way rather than our own way. This may well involve changes in our behaviour, but mostly it involves changes in our deepest being, in who we are, in what's important to us. And that doesn't happen overnight, of course, and won't happen at all without God's help.

We're not just telling God how ghastly we are and promising to change in our own strength. We're asking God to help us grow and change. If we try to change in our own strength, we shall surely fail. Sometimes we get it twisted, and think we have to make ourselves perfect before we can come to God – er no. We must come to God exactly as we are, and allow Him to come into our deepest levels and help us to grow perfect. It won't happen overnight, but as long as we are open to God, it will happen.

And so we come to our penitential rite.

This isn't something we do publicly very often. In our Gospel reading, Jesus reminds his followers that mostly, you keep your religious practices to yourself. You don't make a parade of being holy, because that's not what being holy is about. You don't let everybody know when you're fasting – and I assume that, in this day and age, it means you don't moan on Facebook about missing chocolate or booze if you happen to have decided to give them up for Lent! You certainly don't make a parade about what you are giving, or giving up! What you give to the church or to charity is between you and the Treasurer of that organisation – oh, and the Inland Revenue if you are a tax-payer and gift aid it. Nobody else needs to know. If you are helping out someone who is in financial difficulty, nobody needs to know except you and that person.

You don't have to let people know how much – or how little – you pray, although it's only polite to say you've prayed for someone if they've asked you to. But if you found you lay awake in the night praying for them – and it can happen, if God really needs you to pray for that person – then you don't go saying so, and certainly not to anybody else!

Instead, says Jesus, you do all that privately, keeping it between you and God and anybody else who really needs to know, and you carry on as though nothing has happened.

And that's what we're going to do now. We're going to use the words on the sheet to help us get ourselves right with God, and if we wish, we're going to have the sign of the cross marked on our foreheads with ash as a sign of that happening. But we will wipe it off before we leave here – there are plenty of tissues if you haven't one – and we will go on our way rejoicing.

And I hope we will continue to rejoice throughout Lent; rejoice that we are loved; rejoice that we are saved; rejoice that we are, however slowly, becoming the people we were created to be. It's not our idea, it's not our doing. It's God's idea.

And then, come Easter Sunday, we will be able to realise all this for ourselves, to make the Resurrection real, to know the Risen Lord in our own hearts and lives, and for the joy and love to spill over on to those around us. Amen!