Sermon: Delighting in the Good News
Date Preached: Sunday 21st February 2010
Bible Reference: Luke Chapter 4 verses 1-13
Isn’t memory an amazing faculty to have? (or not because there times when I think I must be losing mine!). But hearing my father during his last few months recount things that happened to him as a small boy in Swansea – repeatedly, yes (!), but in such incredibly fine detail. And then listening to dear Annie as she recounted particular events as if they’d happened yesterday – it was a real privilege. The famous French novelist, Marcel Proust titled his great work In Search of Lost Time and his theme was that without memory there is no character or understanding – and it’s not just the great memories that are significant, it’s all those small things that join together so powerfully.
Today’s reading from Deuteronomy brings us the ‘remembrance of times past’ when Yahweh (Israel’s God) had rescued the people from slavery in Egypt – and it was the very struggle to get to where they were – into a more settled state in land that was promised - that gave them huge reason to be grateful. So Moses is giving them rituals for remembering – like the things we do at harvest festival, recalling God’s goodness and provision. I’m sure those in this church and community could talk in similar ways of God’s faithfulness amidst the struggles and hard times – and here we are today with a sense (I hope) that things are moving – and we’re so thankful to those that tilled the ground over the years. The passage from Romans too, that comes in the middle of Paul’s long and convoluted explanation of how the old and new covenants fit together, is all about small things that stand for bigger ones. Paul is asking his readers to pay attention to little things they can do – like noticing what’s in their hearts and on their lips: remembering what and who brought them to belief in the first place – and (here’s the thing) to make this memory come alive by talking to others about it; yes remembering what God has already done for them – but then not keep this to themselves, but making it available to others and so bringing them into the story. Because Deuteronomy and Romans both say that God’s generosity isn’t limited to those who remember. The point of remembering is to bring others in – which is churches – you and I - are here.
And let’s note where Luke places his account of Jesus’ temptation – it’s after his Father has affirmed his love for him at his baptism; and after the genealogy, the family tree, that firmly establishes the proper, central place of Jesus in our memory of God’s dealings with the world. This is a pivotal point in Luke’s gospel – a moment in which Jesus understands and accepts his calling by rejecting the false paths the devil offers to him.
So what does all this say to us as we begin Lent together? - because that’s why we’re all in one pace at the same time this morning – and I’m sure for those who’ve come a little later the roast is going to be okay – (so please hang on for a few minutes for a cuppa) and for those who missed half and hour in bed (or struggled to get the kids ready – sorry), it’ll have been worth the effort! And by the way the services are back to normal next Sunday.
Well let’ s make sure that as well as seeing the importance and value of ‘remembering’ – which is what we do when we share Communion together – that memory on its own can be debilitating. It can be a memory of what you once were, or might have become. It can fix you in times past. When I worked as a social worker in Philadelphia in the 1980s – for two years this was in a strictly psychoanalytic agency - and the predominant belief was that the child’s personality was somehow fixed/stuck as a result of very early experiences. It’s not exactly good news is it?! It says that change isn’t possible – but that’s not the Christian gospel.
Lent isn’t meant to be a time for punishment and pain – and remonstrating with ourselves for messing up in the past – (which is what we’ve all done, if we’re being homest), but for changing our minds, changing our outlook and attitudes. It’s a time for a change of heart – a point that’s vividly illustrated by the first reading of Ash Wednesday when the prophet Joel tells Israel, ‘Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn (Joel 2:13). Indeed the unfashionable English word ‘penance’ is perhaps a bad Latin translation of a Greek word metanoia which actually means a change of mind - not dwelling morbidly on the past and feeling lousy and gulity.
All the great feasts of the Church: Easter, Pentecost, Christmas are celebrated not primarily to remind us of past events, but to help us celebrate Jesus amongst us. Jesus is not born again every Christmas, nor does he rise every Easter Sunday, nor does the Holy Spirit appear like a dove or like fire at Pentecost. We celebrate these feasts to help us understand, appreciate and relish the mystery of our life with God now.
So yes we need penance – but in that proper sense of a willingness to be changed – not to make life harder, or to inflict pain on ourselves, but to free us from the intolerable burden that our imaginary fears can impose upon us.
But what does a change of mind and heart mean – and how can we do this?…Well in a sense we can’t: all we can do is be attentive to God and let him do the transforming. Ask him into our lives to take his rightful place.
Real change means an inner surrendering of our own mind and heart to God, so that whatever I do, I do by his Spirit – with him, for him and through him. God is constantly nudging us to change. Our difficulty is in recognizing his nudging – taking enough time to notice. Deep within us is there is an innate longing for God (because it’s the way we’re hard-wired). No matter how irreligious, unspiritual or unprayerful we may think we are – there’s a kind of longing that St. Augustine recognized as he looked back on his life and wrote, ‘You have created me for yourself and my heart is restless until it rests in you.’ Mind you it often shows itself in rather strange ways that are shaped by our culture. I’m sure the purchase of that European lottery ticket was part of that guy’s deep desire for things to be different. £56 million will obviously do it – although even then maybe not in ways that meet those deepest needs.
(Anyway) I’d recommend you borrowing one of the books I’ve put on the table at the back of church to guide you through these weeks of Lent – there’s a list to write which book and your name. I’m having another go at one called ‘O God Why? By Gerard Hughes, a Jesuit. It’s subtitled ‘a journey through Lent for bruised pilgrims’ – which seems to fit! Anyway he has this to say:
“In our consciousness, this drawing of God [to change] may feel very ungodly; there may be feeling of boredom, dissatisfaction, disappointment, disgust, emptiness, darkness, isolation and estrangement from even those closest to us. God is in all things, and if we can allow these negative feelings to come into our prayer, then we can begin to see them as God’s invitation to change. In some Christian circles the impression is given that those who are close to God live in a constant state of bliss, full of the love of God and his creation, safely cocooned from any negative emotions. This is not the experience of the saints. (Preachers) who say those who turn to God no longer experience darkness, nor any negative feelings, can never have met God in their own prayer, cannot know themselves, but they can prevent others from finding him. That is why it is so important …to bring all our moods and feelings into prayer, so that we can recognize God’s nudgings in all our experience.
So is Lent all about being introspective and self-absorbed? Well it can easily be – we have enough material on self-advancement – and ‘how to be’ books. We breathe air in a culture that’s all about the self. But let’s remember why Christians have celebrated Lent all these years. It’s because the Church, the people of God, is the sacrament of God in the world. Sacrament? Augustine defined this as "a visible sign of an invisible reality."; an effective sign of his presence with us. And the Church must reflect this transcendent quality of God, this characteristic unpredictability, this surprise element. So it just doesn’t make sense if the Church isn’t developing. The early Christians knew for sure that they were a part of a pilgrim Church – always on the move – a Church on a journey out of slavery, or back from exile – through wilderness into the Promised Land. Sadly the truth about the Church can also be very painful and disturbing to us and is the root of much bitterness, animosity and division – even between and within churches. In my Lent book, Gerard Hughes observes: “Even the slightest change can cause a major disturbance within church congregations – and there is nothing more divisive in most than a change in our services. We all fear change, long for security, but a church which offers us unchanging stability has ceased to be Church and is no longer a sign of the transcendent God” but (and here’s the good news) God is also immanent, present in all things – even in the very messy, often shameful history of an obscure and troublesome Middle-East nation destined to be a light to all nations.
The challenge of Lent is mirrored in the changing season as we await Spring (at last!!). Let’s get away from what Hughes calls the human tendency to “distort, discount and disguise the good news of the Christian gospel into something grim, drab and dreary which leaves us suspicious of life” and let’s begin delighting in it – happy and courageous, not guilty and afraid. God is on the move – and he makes all things new! Amen
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