In the cool of the evening… (John 3:1-17)

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘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.”

I’ve heard several explanations for why Nicodemus might have approached Jesus at night – he didn’t want to be seen by his fellow Pharisees; or maybe he thought that was the best time to get to Jesus; perhaps it’s symbolic of the darkness into which Christ’s light shines; maybe simply that the quiet of the night is the best time for deep discussions such as this one.

You can just picture it: Jesus and Nicodemus laid back under a grove of trees, small cups of apple tea to quench their thirst after a hot day, sweet tobacco smoking somewhere quietly behind in a water pipe, the clack-clack of wooden backgammon counters on a board – their fingers kept from idleness.  That’s going a bit far perhaps, but it’s a nice picture.

And in this tranquil scene Nicodemus addresses Jesus as a teacher sent by God.  Jesus gives Nicodemus no time to ask whatever question he might have had prepared.  Hearing a note of flattery in Nicodemus’s voice perhaps Jesus comes straight out with what he must say to Nicodemus “No one can see or enter the kingdom of God without being born from above, without being born of water and Spirit”.

Nicodemus’s question “How can this be?” – the question of Mary Jesus’ mother to the angel – how can this be, how will this happen?  From God, of course from God, who else but from Him – the zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.  Small comfort to Nicodemus, an intelligent man who came to Jesus the teacher and left more confused than he’d ever been before in his life.

It worked out for him I think – in the matter of four short chapters of John’s gospel he is defending Jesus from the other Pharisees, and at the end he helps to lay Jesus’ body in the tomb.

What does it mean to us to be born from above?  To be born from water and the Spirit?  In that dreadfully hackneyed phrase, to be “born again”?  What happens when we go to Jesus by night?  What has He for us?

Prepare to be confused as was Nicodemus.  Pray we may see and enter His kingdom.  Amen.

The Temptation? of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11)

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,

“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

It is Lord Darlington in Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan” that speaks those immortal words ‘I can resist everything except temptation’.  We’re really not very good at resisting those little pulls on our senses are we.  The <I really shouldn’t>, and <I probably oughtn’t> that quickly turn into <Oh go on then> and <Just this once>.  It is perfectly normal to be tempted, and so it would seem perfectly human to give into temptation.

The word temptation confusingly covers a multitude of…well, sins and non-sins.  Nobody, well at least very few people, says it is a sin to see a doughnut in a shop window, rather like the look of it and go in, buy it and eat it.  Far more people (I would hope) would say it is a sin to see a beautiful man or woman, rather like the look of them and engage in a sexual relationship with them even though you are already married.  But “temptation” would more naturally be used to refer to the former situation and not the latter.  Dangerous that we should think that today’s gospel reading was about resisting those little guilty pleasures we all have a weakness for, rather than rejecting hugely harmful acts and attitudes that destroy our relationships with one another and with God.  Temptation?  Or refusal to sin?

The sad truth of the matter is that it is as human to sin as it is to be tempted and to give into temptation.  Before there is Good News, there is bad news – we all do bad things and do harm to others and to ourselves.  To think other than this is self delusion.  The first letter of John in the New Testament says “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…”  Then the Good News: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

We are all of us in the same bind, but we have been shown through the person of Jesus Christ that we have a God who loves us and forgives the bad things we have done: a love so strong that as he was dying on the cross Jesus prayed that those who had committed that terrible crime might be forgiven.

It is only too human to be tempted, to give into temptation and to sin.  But it is not the end of the world, and it is not the final word.  Sins can be forgiven, and Love wins out in the end.

Giving something up for Lent (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)

“‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Giving something up for Lent is one previously Christian practice that seems to have entered the secular conscious.  I heard recently (on Songs of Praise of all things) that in a survey 75% of the population questioned said they would be giving something up for Lent, the majority of those giving up…you guessed it: chocolate.  I know what you’re thinking – lies, damned lies and statistics, right – but 75% seems much higher than the number of church attendees in the UK, or even those who express some sort of (not specifically Christian) spiritual belief.

In truth it seems that giving something up for Lent has become another period for New Year’s Resolutions in the general mindset, and you know how I feel about that…  Give up chocolate, or sugar in tea, or even alcohol: guilty pleasures somehow equated with “sin”.  And of course tell all your friends about it.  And hey, drop a few pounds in the process.  Beneficiary: yourself, of course.  You have your reward!

In response many Christians take something up for Lent instead of giving something up – reading a book (or more) of the Bible, reading a “Lent book”, adopting a regular devotion or prayer practice.  Others keep to a traditional strict fast: no meat and no dairy products for the whole of Lent.  I have huge respect for that – I couldn’t do it.

There’s nothing wrong with giving something up for Lent.  Why not give up something really difficult, or really harmful to you.  Why not try giving up something up where you don’t know that you’ll succeed.  Give something up where there’s every possibility that you will fail.  Then see what happens.  Do something different for a change.  And don’t tell anyone about it.  Except your Father in heaven.

God is there, perceive it or not (Matthew 17:1-9)

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’

The changing seasons and festivals of the church year are one of the great treasures of the liturgical tradition, and it’s interesting how often high and low points seem to alternate.  This past Sunday we celebrated the feast of Christ’s transfiguration – the revelation of his divine nature to certain of his disciples in a visible way.  Tomorrow we commemorate Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the solemn penitential season of Lent.  The tragedy of Good Friday is recalled every year, followed three days later by the highest point of the church year, Easter Day.  Come December, the reflective waiting period of Advent will usher in the celebrations of Christmas for another year.

In the same way our own walk of faith is characterised  by higher and lower points.  Times when we might feel closer to God, and times when God feels entirely absent.  Times when our faith makes us feel like celebrating, and times it can make us feel guilty and downright depressed.  Such is human nature.

The one constant throughout every season of the church calendar is God as he has been revealed to us through Jesus Christ.  It can be very difficult sometimes to come to the same conclusion about our own lives.  But God is there, whether we perceive it or not.

As surely as Good Friday comes around every year there will come those times when it feels like we have been foresaken by God, or God feels dead to us.  As surely as Advent leads on to Christmas the light of Christ will shine into the darkest corners of our lives again.  The cycle continues, and there is probably not much we can do about that!