Splinters remain (Matthew 28:1-10)

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

Matthew’s account of the resurrection differs somewhat from those recalled in Luke’s and John’s gospels.  When Jesus appears to His disciples in Matthew’s account they instantly know who He is, fall at His feet and offer to Him what should only be offered to God Himself: worship.  In the other gospel accounts, Jesus’ followers aren’t quite so quick on the uptake.

According to Luke’s account the two travellers on the road to Emmaus did not initially recognise their fellow traveller as the risen Jesus.  It was only when He took some bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them that his identity was revealed.  Perhaps a reminder of the Eucharistic practice of the early church?  In the gospel according to John when Mary Magdalene meets the risen Jesus in the garden she doesn’t recognise him and assumes him to be the gardener.  Only when Jesus addresses her by name does Mary turn and see Who is standing before her.

It’s often remarked that although Jesus’s appearance (in Luke and John’s accounts at least) is not as it was before His crucifixion, at least His wounds did endure the resurrection.  In John’s account it is only when the disciple Thomas sees Christ’s wounds that he believes that it is really Him.  Those things we might expect to endure the resurrection, such as physical appearance, may in fact not do so; whereas certain other things – scars, wounds, physical ailments – that we expect to be wiped away in the resurrection for some reason might not be.

One thing I took away from James Alison’s book “Knowing Jesus” was that to think of our Lord only as the risen Lord was too simplistic.  Jesus Christ is the crucified-and-risen Lord.  Crucifixion as much as resurrection is a part of who He is, who He is to us, and who we are called to be for Him.  So, just as even the bleakest moment of the Christian year, Good Friday, is tinged with the future hope of the resurrection, so this highest point of joy, Easter Sunday, still retains a note of sadness.  Yes, the Lord is risen: Alleluia!  But He is not risen without having died in the first place, and through the fault of sinful humanity who could not accept God amongst them.

So much of Christian preaching and spirituality focuses – and rightly so – on our status as Easter people; people living in the Light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and living in hope of our own resurrection at the end of all things.  And I suppose that particular slant is what has come to dominate my personal theology too.

But something feels different this year.  It is Easter Sunday; it feels good and right to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord; it is one of those particularly joyful years when Western and Eastern (Orthodox) Christians celebrate Easter on the same day; and yet I can’t quite forget Good Friday.

I don’t know why in particular things should feel different this year.  I found the experience of venerating the cross for the first time this Good Friday particularly moving.  Kneeling before a large, rough wooden cross; laying my hand on it; laying my head against it; all the while contemplating what took place on a larger, rougher wooden cross two millenia ago; and then gently touching my lips to the wood.  Perhaps that is what it was; I don’t know.  Good Friday is past, but a few splinters of that wood feel as if they remain.

I wish you all a very Happy Easter.  Jesus Christ is risen – Alleluia.  Crucified and risen – Alleluia.

The middle ground

Early on the Sabbath day, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone was covering the entrance to the tomb.  And Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  They came to the village to which they were going.

When it was evening on that day, the disciples gathered in a house and locked the doors for fear of the Jews.   But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them.

After these things the disciples were gathered together by the Sea of Tiberias: Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others.  Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Well, it could have happened that way…

Three falls

No original reflection from me today – it feels like everything that can be said about Good Friday has already been said.  Instead I’ll share with you three beautiful sonnets from Malcolm Guite’s Stations of the Cross (http://wordpress.com/read/blog/id/4531601/).  The three poems and stations I found particularly moving when I read them are the three times Jesus falls under the weight of the cross.

III Jesus falls the first time

He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion
And well he knows the path we make him tread
He met the devil as a roaring lion
And still refused to turn these stones to bread,
Choosing instead, as Love will always choose,
This darker path into the heart of pain.
And now he falls upon the stones that bruise
The flesh, that break and scrape the tender skin.
He and the earth he made were never closer,
Divinity and dust come face to face.
We flinch back from his via dolorosa,
He sets his face like flint and takes our place,
Staggers beneath the black weight of us all
And falls with us that he might break our fall.

VII Jesus falls the second time

Through all our veils and shrouds of daily pain,
Through our bruised bruises and re-opened scars,
He falls and stumbles with us, hurt again
When we are hurt again. With us he bears
The cruel repetitions of our cruelty;
The beatings of already beaten men,
The second rounds of torture, the futility
Of all unheeded pleading, every scream in vain.
And by this fall he finds the fallen souls
Who passed a first, but failed a second trial,
The souls who thought their faith would hold them whole
And found it only held them for a while.
Be with us when the road is twice as long
As we can bear. By weakness make us strong.

IX Jesus falls the third time

He weeps with you and with you he will stay
When all your staying power has run out
You can’t go on, you go on anyway.
He stumbles just beside you when the doubt
That always haunts you, cuts you down at last
And takes away the hope that drove you on.
This is the third fall and it hurts the worst
This long descent through darkness to depression
From which there seems no rising and no will
To rise, or breathe or bear your own heart beat.
Twice you survived; this third will surely kill,
And you could almost wish for that defeat
Except that in the cold hell where you freeze
You find your God beside you on his knees.

My favourite Bible story (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

‘For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’

A few weeks ago, our Vicar in his sermon challenged us to think about what our favourite Bible story is…and to tell people about it.  Well, here it is, and I’m doing the telling!

Recounted so briefly in St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, this one story has come to define the church over the last two millenia.  It has come to define me.  And this night, Maundy Thursday as we call it, we remember particularly that last supper that Jesus shared with his friends before his cruel death.  That night when he took bread and wine and gave them to his followers as His Body and His Blood, telling us to do likewise.

Jesus Christ, the baby born in a borrowed stable in Bethlehem, God Himself made man and given to us now stands in a borrowed room in Jerusalem and gives of Himself once again.  Inviting us to take our most deeply longed for nourishment from His own substance God takes one more risk for us and His creation.  God held in the palm of our hand, eaten, drunk of, taken up into our bodies, our breaths, our thoughts, our lives: it us up to us what we do with this Body, this Blood, this God made man.

In only a few short hours Jesus would be dead and His broken body laid in a borrowed tomb; the final borrowed resting place.  But for now He keeps his focus on the present, gives thanks for the simple meal He has to share with His friends and hands to them His safety, His dignity, His beauty – given to those of them and us who desert Him in His hour of greatest need, and those who would even betray him to His death.  One more sleepless night in prayer, then what He knows has been coming, what He knows must happen, what He prays would be taken from Him.

Keeping my own sleepy vigil in our church late this evening I asked myself what to say to this God made man, to the One who had invited me to His feast, and who now sits weeping and alone in the silent garden.  What can be said?  There’s a long way yet to go: many miles before we get to Emmaus.   And the hour is now at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.  God in the palm of our hand: it is up to us what we do with Him.

A long way behind (John 11:1-45)

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two milesaway, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

I’m feeling so far behind in my blogging at the moment.  This post is for the Sunday before last; I still owe a post for two Sundays before that; AND for the Sunday just gone: Palm Sunday.  And we’re now into Holy Week already.  The pressure to say something worth reading rather than just something at all is always there, but I’m so short of time now that I’m just going to have to put some thoughts down and move on.

A first thing that struck me about this passage is John’s portrayal of “the Jews”.  When John refers to “the Jews” in his gospel he doesn’t mean the everyday citizens of the time, but the religious authorities – the scribes, the pharisees, or the chief priests and their entourage.  John’s portrayal of them is usually very negative: they are the ones who conspire to have Jesus put to death and who whip up the crowds into a frenzy against him.  At the beginning of this passage there’s a typical reference to “the Jews” – the disciples warn Jesus that he will be stoned by the Jews if he returns to Judea.

But later on in the passage it is the self same “Jews” who are comforting Martha and Mary after the death of their brother Lazarus.  They are actually there before Jesus!  It’s perhaps a reminder that however bad and evil we might think some people are; they are still human; they are still capable of kindness.  And by the end of the passage many of the Jewish authorities – these traditional enemies of Jesus – have come to believe in him.  There is still within most people the capacity to surprise us.

Thomas’s attitude in the passage also seems really strange – when he hears that Lazarus is dead he says “Let us also go, that we may die with him”.  This doesn’t seem to be in response to a call from Jesus for the disciples to follow Him to their own deaths, but a spontaneous reaction to hearing that a friend had died.  I’m not really quite sure I understand this attitude – perhaps Thomas was just confused.  Perhaps it does mean something and I just don’t understand it!  Perhaps he was referring to Jesus’s attitude of heading back to Judea to help out their friends no matter the risk to his own life.  On reflection, that sounds more like it, but who am I to know.

I think that’s all I have inspiration or time for right now!  The everyday is calling once more.

A lengthy spell of blindness (John 9:1-41)

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

I’m really struggling with these longer gospel passages from John we’re having at the moment.  I owe a blog post for two Sundays ago based on a long passage from John, am trying to do this one for the Sunday just gone based on another long passage from John, and know there’s a further long passage from John awaiting this Sunday too.  I find John quite a readable gospel, but it’s just heavier going trying to write a reflection (rather than sermon) on these long passages.

I get the feeling that the telling of this healing miracle would have been considerably shorter had it been in Matthew, Mark or Luke’s gospel.  In this account we hear of the blind man’s encounter with Jesus, the restoration of the blind man’s sight, an encounter between the blind man and his neighbours, the man is interviewed by the pharisees who then call his parents in for questioning too, the pharisees then question the blind man again, and then at the end of the story Jesus encounters the blind man a further time.  There’s quite a lot going on, and it has to be assumed that the author of John’s gospel included the details he did for a reason.

What to take away from this passage in  few words?  Firstly I find it interesting that following the restoration of the blind man’s sight his neighbours and those who had previously seen him begging couldn’t make up their mind whether it was really him or not.  Surely only his eyes had been healed; not the appearance of his face changed?  The ones who had previously seen were temporarily rendered blind to the man who had been born blind and could now see…

Towards the end of John’s gospel someone else is not recognised by someone who knew him well.  This time it is the risen Jesus, who has passed through death and conquered it, who is not recognised by his friend Mary Magdalene.  Is there something about proximity to God’s healing restorative power which renders people unrecognisable, even only for a short moment?

Another thing that comes out of this passage is the growing threat from the pharisees and other Jewish authorities towards Jesus and his followers.  The pharisees interrogate the man born blind twice, and question his parents whom were already in fear of the authorities.  The pharisees openly reviled the disciples of Jesus.  Of course, we know where this rising tension will lead: arrest, interrogation, probable torture and then a brutal death for the healer, the good guy in this story: Jesus himself.

The effect on the cured man is also profound.  Twice before the pharisees he defends Jesus, declaring him a prophet, as one without sin, and one sent from God who obeys God’s will.  Then face-to-face with Jesus and now able to see him (physically) he declares his belief in him and worships him: he now sees beyond Jesus’s face to see who he is spiritually as well.

And being John’s gospel the divinity of Jesus is never far away: the man born blind worships Jesus – he offers to him what should only be offered to God.  He offers to him what he himself had told the pharisees Jesus offers to God, his worship.  The author of this gospel wants to tell his readers that in Jesus he himself has found (and the man born blind has found) more than a teacher, more than a healer, more than a prophet even, more than one sent from God, more than God’s Son even, but God Himself amongst as.  The “Word”, the very essence of God, made flesh who has thrown in his lot with us and pitched his tent in the midst of us.

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!