Lent 2: Holy Living in the Leafy Hambleden Valley


Genesis 17:1-7; 15-16
Mark 8:31-38

At Friday prayers in Fawley churchyard this week, we were reminded of the Lent watchwords: discipline, repentance and growth. These are some of the keys to holy living. Underpinning these three activities is practice. The season of Lent echoes the 40 days of Christ in the wilderness, preparing for this ministry.
Jesus had been practicing – directly after his baptism, Jesus is flung into the wilderness to face the temptations of Satan. Jesus rebuffs and refuses Satan’s offerings by using the teachings of scripture. In doing this, Jesus demonstrates for us what it is to live a life of discipline that has come through practice.

In this passage of Mark, we get a number of Jesus’ more quotable lines, ‘Get behind me Satan!’; ‘Take up your cross and follow me’; ‘What is it to gain the whole world and lose your soul?’. There is often great temptation to take these verses out of context and apply them to just about any situation. Much like taking Churchill quotes or lines of Shakespeare and reducing them to coffee mugs and tea towels.

Similarly, we can lose the meaning of what Jesus is saying if we lift these verses out of their context too. The context that Jesus is teaching into was his death; this is the first time that Jesus predicts his death. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” Jesus tells his disciples quite plainly. He must “be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Standing on this side of resurrection history, we easily miss the bombshell effect these words must have had on Jesus’s disciples. Their great hope, cultivated over the three years they had followed Jesus, was that he would lead them in a military revolution and overthrow their Roman oppressors.
What then could be more disorienting, more ludicrous, than the news that their would-be champion was determined to walk straight into a death trap? To surrender without a fight to a common criminal’s death.

Peter, in a moment of confusion and shock, scolds Jesus for his dire prediction. And Jesus, in what might be the sharpest and most surprising rebuke in all of Scripture, puts Peter in his place with one swift stroke: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
You can hardly blame Peter, how often are our minds on human things rather than the divine? Holy living requires higher thoughts, and this takes some practice. It is easier to think holy thoughts when all is well. Much more difficult to do when faced with death, threats to security and uncertainty.

Then Jesus turns to the crowds and captures the essence of his message in two sentences: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Even now, centuries removed from the context in which Jesus lived and taught, what exactly is Jesus saying? That he wants us to pursue suffering and death? That a holy life is not about living at all, but about dying? About martyrdom?
What does a holy life look like in 21st century England?

Where does our discipline come from? How repentant are we? Are there any signs of growth? What does it mean to deny myself? Living, as we do, in a culture that does not imprison, torture, or kill Christians for our faith, how shall I deny myself so that the gospel might thrive, here and now? How shall I save my life by losing it for Jesus’s sake in the leafy Hambleden Valley? How shall I die?

‘If any want to become my followers’ – would imply there is a choice to be made. Jesus is speaking to a crowd, lots of people watching and listening. I would suggest that not all of them decided then and there to deny themselves and pick up their cross. There are always lots of people to stand and watch others do the heavy lifting. These are the ones who think they are saving their lives by not getting involved, or staying quiet or think that all religions, God, etc. are the same and get you there in the end, just be good or a nice person. The reality is though that lives will be lost.

Let them deny themselves’ – This is not the body and I am not living the life of a person who denies herself very much! I am not always good at living beyond my own convenience. What would it look like to deny ourselves those things that prevent us from living a life that follows totally after Jesus?

And take up their cross and follow me.’ We use it as a throw-away sometimes. ‘We all have our crosses to bear’ to explain or give meaning to the circumstances of another. We all have situations, issues, stuff going on that needs bearing up; we can’t ignore, dismiss or wish it away. Pick it up!
If we pick our crosses up to follow Jesus we are not going to have to carry it by ourselves. In Matthew 11 Jesus says, ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Who can we look to for a holy life? We see an example in Abraham. All that Abraham was promised came through his righteousness and God’s faithfulness. Abraham’s great age is not to be overlooked! It took a lifetime of practice, of discipline, repentance and growth. It was certainly not an easy life, but it was worth it in the end.

I think that one of the best examples in recent history is Billy Graham. Billy Graham died in February 2018, at the grand age of 99 and in his own home. He is a shining example of what it is to live a holy life of faithful service Jesus until the end. Carrying your cross daily and faithfully. Giving up your life, your convenience for others. We probably will not influence millions of people around the world – that’s okay. How about we influence those around us – in our homes, families, villages, our workplaces, schools, the stranger on the train or in the coffee shop.

Billy Graham lived a scandal free life – both financially and sexually. Is that not refreshing given what is being reported in the news almost daily? Money, sex, pride and power have a death grip on so many people. Mark is presenting us with Jesus’ idea of what real life looks like; a ‘real life’, a holy life that does not have space for the misuse and abuse of money, sex, pride and power. This real life includes death – death to these things and to ourselves.

Mark ends this passage by making it clear that following Jesus seems the only way to go. There is some good news: the crosses that we must bear are so much lighter than the cross that Jesus had to bear

What is the reward? From Billy Graham: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

In the presence of God who loves us deeply, gave up everything so we can be with him, who repays us with a life spent in eternity. By losing and denying – we gain much more.

Blessed are those who carry
for they shall be lifted.

Ash Wednesday: Living in Shades of Grey

Ash Wednesday 2021 Reflection


John 8:1-11
Psalm 51

My reflection for Ash Wednesday is focussing on John 8:2-11 and this amazing piece of art painted by Peter the Bruegel in 1565. It is entitled ‘Christ and the Women Taken in Adultery.’ This Gospel story has been painted by many others – but none quite like Bruegel.

Courtauld Gallery, London

What is striking is that this panel (which hangs in the Courtauld Gallery in London) is painted in different shades of grey. Bruegel used the greys to represent the human response to sin and to point out the hypocrisy and the virtue of mercy that this Gospel story highlights so well.

At the centre of this picture and in the most amount of light is Jesus. He is kneeling and writing in Dutch. Jesus is the best lit and most exposed person in this picture.

The woman has literally been dragged from an adulterer’s bed and her sin has been announced to all. This was an offence punishable by death according to the law of Moses. Where was the man, she was adultering with?

Oh the humiliation – maybe you have been caught out publicly for something you did and can relate to this woman. The woman is intently watching Jesus with a slightly blank expression. She is not looking at the crowd; but she is not looking directly down either. Her left ear is slightly cocked towards the crowd – maybe listening to what people are saying to her or about her.

The crowd – according to Bruegel – are showing the human reaction to being confronted with sin. Those closer to the front are much m ore exposed, lighter – than those at the back. Some are turning away, wanting to stay hidden, unexposed.

I have been wondering about the two men on the right – both very exposed – but notice their hands – one has his hands hidden under his cloak and the other’s hands are in darkness. Their faces and mouths might say one thing – maybe their hands are telling another story.

Every person in this picture – except for Jesus – is a sinner. Everyone here this morning/tonight is a sinner as well. Fortunately, this is not the end of the story for any of us!

If you could place yourself in this picture – where would you put yourself? Serious question!

Many people fear being ‘found out’ – whether for having done something wrong or by not being the person they present to the world. Some people have a view of God as being out to get them or expose them for their sins. God is the angry Father just waiting for a mistake to be made.

But in this story – it is not Jesus who does the exposing but the scribes and Pharisees. He cares for this woman, protects her from death and puts her on a new path. He does not condemn her as the crowd did. She doesn’t get off the hook as she is told to ‘Go and sin no more.’ She had some work to do!

Tom Wright says this about her forgiveness: “If she has been forgiven, if she’s been rescued from imminent death – she must live by that forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the same as tolerance. Being forgiven doesn’t mean that sin doesn’t matter. On the contrary: forgiveness means that sin does matter – but that God is choosing to set it aside.” The same is true for us – if we have been forgiven – then we must live by that forgiveness.

Psalm 51 is known as a ‘penitential psalm.’ It is an extended confession of sin and an anticipation of new life grounded in divine forgiveness. It was written by David during his tragic downfall – he yielded to temptation and committed adultery with Bathsheba. He then tried to cover up what he did with lies, deceit and eventually murder. David’s sin was exposed to him by the prophet Nathan. Psalm 51 is David’s confession and anticipation of forgiveness.

Despite David’s actions, the response to the uncovering of sin is exemplary: I have sinned against the Lord (2 Samuel 12:13). In Psalm 51 – David’s first request is for mercy – David knows that God is generous, is merciful and whose love is steadfast. God is abundant in all of those things. Then David’s confession goes on for the first 9 verses. David comes to know that God desires truth and wisdom – and this is where David begins to see a new beginning beyond his failure.

By verse 10 the psalm moves from confession to petitions addressed to the God
of mercy and steadfast love – this is an act of hope for a renewed and restored relationship with God. Words like – create in me, put, do not cast, do not take, restore, sustain. David is anticipating a clean heart, a new and right spirit. We can all have this – a clean heart and a new and right spirit. But we have to do some work first.

Ash Wednesday is a time to reflect and pursue forgiveness of our sins. This has traditionally been played out in various fasting rituals that some Christians engage in. Historically in the church this meant meat, dairy, eggs, – the staples of life – rather than the ‘luxuries’ of sugar, caffeine, alcohol or the evils of fatty fizzy drinks and Facebook.

The overall point of the exercise is to draw nearer to God. As Christians, the bigger issue is that we let things interfere in our relationship with Christ. It might seem small or insignificant but if we don’t tend to these things or issues – they can blow up at an exponential rate.

Ash Wednesday offers the chance to sit down in the ashes in some form of repentance to address our sin and brokenness. Sit down before you fall down. As we have seen from both the Gospel and the Psalms – sin gets exposed. Sometimes rather publicly.

To come to a place of repentance is no small feat and is not for the faint of heart. It takes real courage to review ourselves and our actions – and acknowledge where and when we have been wrong, been sinful. And then have to do something about it. But apologising is only half of the process. Repentance literally means to turn in the other direction and committing to change. It is only through Christ and being in Christ that death and sin are defeated – that is the lighter news.

But what if good was to come from the times spent in the dust and ashes?

The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that it can lead us to both lower our gaze to that which in us needs refocusing and correcting. Then – at the same time – we can begin to raise our gaze to the dazzling beauty and light of Christ. There is no need to be ashamed of those things that need to be ashed out – sit with them for a while and let them go.

Use this season of Lent to trade them in for the generous mercy and steadfast love that God has for you – there is nothing that He wants more from you than to be close to you.

Candlemas: Presentation is Everything

Candlemas – Year B
Hambleden Valley Group Zoom Service

Malachi 3:1-5
Luke 2:22-40

The Presentation of Christ (Candlemas) officially marks the end of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons. Have any of you left the Christmas decorations up a little longer this year? In the church we will start to turn our attention to Lent which begins in a few short weeks. Before we plunge into this new season, we celebrate Candlemas as reminder that Jesus is the light of the world. This is the message that I think we and the wider world needs right now.

There is light in the darkness of the current age and that light is Jesus. Sometimes the light of Jesus comes in ways that we might not be expecting – sometimes it comes quickly as the blinding light from the heavens. Other times it comes slowly, like noticing that the morning light is coming earlier each day and the evenings are growing longer. Either way God is faithful even if at times He is unexpectedly so.

We are shown God’s faithfulness in the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophesy. The messenger is John the Baptist who came to prepare the way for Jesus. ‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’, to the surprise and disbelief of many, is the baby Jesus in the loving arms of his parents. Not as expected.

Mary and Joseph, being good Jewish parents, bring Jesus to the temple as was the custom of the day. This was to be expected. Any presentation was a three-step process: circumcision, redemption and purification.

Circumcision is first commanded in Genesis by God. It would serve as a sign of the covenant (a promise) between God and (Abraham). The rite of circumcision was God’s way of requiring the Jewish people to become physically different – by cutting off – because of their relationship to Him. Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day of his young life. This was the first action of devout Jewish parents for a firstborn son.

The New Testament also talks about circumcision, but this is of a spiritual nature and not a physical one. Colossians 2:11 ‘In him (that being Jesus) you were also circumcised, in the putting off the sinful nature.’ We too, like the Jewish people, are to be different because of our relationship with Him. We all have bits of ourselves, if we are honest, that could be cut off. Those things in our characters or personalities that are difficult or unpleasant, that make life harder than it needs to be. Maybe we hold our money and possessions a little too tightly? We may have areas of sin that need to be cut out. This is what Jesus came to do for those who believe in Him.

The Rite of Redemption was a reminder to the Jewish people that ‘the Lord brought them out of Egypt with his mighty hand’ (Exodus 13). God had redeemed His people from their slavery in Egypt. Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem in obedience and thanksgiving to God for having redeemed His people.

Young parents would present their firstborn son to God, symbolising the act of giving him up to God by saying ‘He is Yours and we give him back to You.’ Then they would immediately redeem him or buy him back effectively with a lamb of a pair of birds.

We must all be redeemed! For us non-Jews, we are not bought with birds from God by our natural parents. Rather, we are bought by Christ who used his life to redeem our sinful, natural states and gave us to God. In the New Testament – Jesus fulfils this very rite as he came to redeem us. Ephesians ‘in Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.’

Thirdly, the Rite of Purification. This is the last of the baby birth rites. It is an act of cleansing for the mother after giving birth. When this time was over (33 days for a boy and 66 days for a girl), the mother was to bring offerings to the priest. The required sacrifice was a lamb plus a turtle dove. However, if the mother could not afford a lamb, she was to take two turtle doves. This is what Mary and Joseph bring, the offerings of poverty – they brought the least sacrifice permitted by Jewish law.

Yet they had in their arms the greatest sacrifice that God could ever make for purification – Jesus. They brought the least and were given the greatest.

Malachi talks of the Lord being like a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap. These are both painful ways of being cleaned. A refiner’s fire is incredibly hot to burn off the impurities of gold and silver. If Mom or Nan has ever had a go at you with the soap and a brush – you will know the pain of being cleaned with a hard scrub.

Again, these OT images of physical purification are translated into spiritual purification in the NT. In these rituals, Jesus is presented to the people he came to save and redeem. This is where Simeon and Anna fit. They were at the temple the day that Jesus was presented. They are proof of the faithfulness of God.

I am going to tread lightly on one of the major themes of Candlemas which is death. I am not afraid to talk about it; I was a Macmillan Palliative Care Nurse for a few years. I am aware of the milestone in Covid deaths this past week and that we are constantly reminded of death. It is fair to say that Simeon and Anna are at the end of their lives.

Simeon was told that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Simeon held on to this promise by living a devout life and waited, likely for decades until finally the day came. Simeon got himself ready through devotion, worship, prayer, watching and waiting. Anyone wanting to experience the glory of God, want to deepen your relationship, strengthen your faith – be like Simeon and work at it! Simeon’s faithfulness is rewarded by God’s faithfulness as he responds to seeing the baby, ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’.

The faithfulness of God also features in Anna’s story. I don’t think you can talk about Simeon and then ignore Anna. She was the next person Jesus is presented to. Anna was a widow and had spent her life in the temple. Her life has been defined by death – as Jesus’ would be. Anna had lived a life of patient hope as she spent 65-ish years in the temple. She didn’t waver, didn’t give up but daily lived with faithfulness and expectation until the day the Messiah arrived.

On this day of presentation, we too can present ourselves again to God. We don’t need to sacrifice any lambs or birds we can go directly to the Father. If we can hold the three rites: circumcision, redemption and purification as what Jesus ultimately came to do for us; we will come to fuller understanding of Jesus and a richer life in him.

We need circumcision to cut away those things in us that do not bear fruit. Jesus will do a much better job of this than we ever will.

We need redemption to be brought into the family of God. Only Jesus can do this for us with his blood.

We need purification as we need clean hands and a pure heart. Again – it is in the death and resurrection of Jesus that we are cleansed.

Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus is the faithful and loving light of the world. He is our light and we need to share His light to those around us living in darkness. We need to be light to each other.

God is faithful in all of these things and all through our lives if we look to the example of faithfulness of Simeon and Anna.