Lent 2: Pick it up!


Psalm 22:23-end
Romans 4:13-end
Mark 8:31-38

This morning’s gospel reading is at the centre point of Mark. You may have noticed that it contains some of Jesus’ most well-known sayings. Many of these sayings often come up independently of each other in modern usage; here we have them all together in a few verses of Mark. ‘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 to any situation we find ourselves in. Much like taking Churchill quotes or lines of Shakespeare and reducing them to coffee mugs and tea towels.

These are not flippant comments; nor are they meant as a joke or a throw away from Jesus. To fully appreciate what is being said, we need to look to the start of Mark 8. Jesus and the disciples are teaching to large crowds who are tracking them. He is feeding them with the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes. The Pharisees are looking for a fight with their constant testing. Jesus is healing the blind. The disciples are seemingly slow to grasp what is going on. You can, with some attention, feel the pressure building.

Jesus is surrounded by people who are questioning who he is and in whose authority he is teaching, preaching and healing. So he asks a fairly generic question: ‘who do people say that I am?’ To which he is given a range of answers, the local gossip as it were. John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the Prophets. Jesus then turns to a more pointed and direct question of ‘But who do YOU say that I am?’ No more hiding behind the answers of others!

Now I don’t think Jesus was struggling particularly with his identity but wanted to see if the disciples were clear about it. Who do you say Jesus is? If someone asked you, what answer would you give? Do you have one?

Jesus knew his time on earth was getting short. He was trying to prepare his disciples for what was to come; they needed to understand what the Messiah meant. As Jews they would have had ideas and expectations of the coming Messiah. They had been waiting for centuries for the Messiah to come! However, Jesus is not and never was going to be the Messiah they had imagined.
With some irony, the place Caesarea Philippi (in modern day northern Israel), was a place where Jewish groups expected the arrival of the age to come. It was no accident that Jesus chose this place to have this conversation. Jesus the Messiah, the start of the new age is in the place where some Jewish people expected the arrival of the age to come. This is exciting news; Peter is so moved that he declares that Jesus is the Messiah.

And then… Jesus drops a bombshell. “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.” The context that Jesus is teaching into was his death; this is the first time that Jesus predicts his death.

Standing on this side of resurrection history, we easily miss the utter shock these words had on Jesus’s disciples. Their great hope, cultivated over the three years they had followed Jesus, was dashed. Jesus was supposed to lead them in a military revolution and overthrow their Roman oppressors and restore Israel to former greatness. What then could be more disorienting, more ludicrous, than the news that their would-be champion was going to walk without a fight to certain death? An embarrassing death at that.

Peter, in a moment of confusion and shock, scolds Jesus for his dire prediction. 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? 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 village of Charlwood or Sidlow Bridge?

‘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. The use of if suggests that not everyone decided then and there become followers of Jesus. It is not easy and no promise of an easy, pain-free, suffering avoidant life is ever offered.

‘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; ‘we all have our crosses to bear’ to explain or give meaning to the circumstances of another. 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. We all have situations, issues, stuff going on that needs bearing up; we cannot 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 to 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 and that is 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. 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.

Lent 1: Baptism & Temptation of Jesus

Paolo Veronese, Baptism & Temptation of Christ (1582) in the Pinoteco de Brera, Milan

Lent 1

Psalm 25:1-9
1 Peter 3:18-end
Mark 1: 9-15

Welcome to Lent. I wish you all a holy one. As a reminder of what the season of Lent should look like I start with the words from the Introduction to the Ash Wednesday service and invite you to observe it faithfully.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, since early days Christians have observed with great devotion the time of our Lord’s passion and resurrection and prepared for this by a season of penitence and fasting.

By carefully keeping these days, Christians take to heart the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel, and so grow in faith and in devotion to our Lord.

I invite you, therefore, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.

Lent is not to be a season of misery or forsaking the delicacies of life for the sake of them. It is meant to bring us closer to God, to build up our relationships with Jesus and to deepen our understanding of the faith. Take the opportunity; we all need to.

The first Sunday of Lent Gospel is always set on the temptation of Jesus. This event happened immediately after Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. It is almost as though Jesus is teleported from the banks of the Jordan to the barren landscapes of the desert.

I was in Milan last weekend for a short art & culture break. One of the paintings that caught my attention was by Paolo Veronese and is called the ‘Baptism and Temptation of Christ.’ On the left of the canvas was the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan surrounded by chubby angels and some onlookers. The dove of the Holy Spirit is radiant. Veronese paints Jesus with a slightly surprised look on his face. On the right of the canvas, walking away from the joyous scene and towards Jerusalem, is Jesus and Satan, a hooded old man.

These two stories are rarely associated other than as chronological events in the Gospel. Yet there is a link. In the waters of baptism we are made new, sins are forgiven, promises made over us and by us and we become part of the family of God. Yet temptation is waiting at every turn to distract, cause us to distrust and walk away from God.

Temptation can take many forms and comes in many guises. We have advertisers telling us to give into temptation, a quick Google search produces all sorts of interesting things: sweets, chocolate, coffee, music, movies, restaurants. Temptation can also take physical or sexual form which can be particularly destructive. While some temptations may seem innocuous, the underlying principle is a desire to engage in short-term urges for enjoyment that threatens long-term goals.

We are to set our minds on things above. The idea behind fasting for Lent is rooted in this Gospel story; Jesus was able to resist temptation at his weakest points. We give up things in Lent to remind ourselves of the sacrifices that Jesus made. It is not so much about the cakes, chocolates & wine as it is about the attitude of our hearts towards God and the sacrifices of Jesus.

An explanation for Jesus’ temptation is that he had to determine what kind of Messiah he was going to be. Jesus was at the very start of his public ministry; He might as well start as he means to go on.

I want to briefly look at the temptations that Jesus faced and what they might say to us today.

“Tell This Stone to Become Bread”

There should not be any doubt that Jesus could not have done that. He was, after all, hungry. He had been fasting for forty days! He could have made himself a lovely, fresh loaf and satisfied his hunger right then and there. Served himself as he had the power to.

It was the Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness; this was not something he decided to do himself. He trusted his Father in heaven so to turn the stone into bread would have shown distrust in his father. Many of us have the power to look after ourselves, provide for ourselves to a standard that we see fit. I can do it myself, thank you very much!

By doing things for ourselves all the time, we too can stop exercising trust in God to provide for us. His provision is always better, remember we too are his beloved and precious children.

“Throw Yourself Down From Here”

The second temptation is also about trust in God as Satan wants Jesus to put God to the test. This never ends well! Sometimes we put God to the test too when we try to bargain with him. ‘I’ll do this, if you’ll do that.’

What’s the root here? Power. People crave power and Satan knows this. We want to be in control of our own lives, destinies, plans. It started with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; they were tempted by the prospect of power. They believed, with no proof at all, that eating the apple would make them like God.
The serpent created doubt in their minds by convincing them that there was more to God than he was letting on. Surely just living the good life in the garden was not all that God wanted. Really? The idea that we can become our own ‘god’ is pervasive in current culture. We want to be powerful, image is everything. Is it? People are falling down as a result of giving into the temptations that indulge the short-term but destroy the long.

“If You Worship Me, It Will All Be Yours”

It is very difficult to imagine that Jesus would be tempted to worship Satan. This final temptation is more about Jesus wanting to take Satan’s authority out of his hands. This authority is temporary and limited but it still is very real; a quick read of the news and it is easy to see.

Sometimes we may find ourselves wanting to take control of a situation, overtake another person, and get our own way. We want to be the centre of attention. Adam and Eve listen to the wrong voice and it did not end well for them. The serpent cast doubt in their minds, the apple was eaten and out of the garden they went. God gave them one prohibition and a relatively small one at that.

We listen to the wrong voices! We worship the wrong things, the wrong people, the wrong stuff because we think that they hold the key to our security. It is only in God that we will ever be truly secure. Who are we worshipping today?

The time of temptation was to establish that Jesus had choices and desires of his own, like all humans do. We, following the example of Jesus, must choose to make God’s will our own will. We choose through our temptations and wilderness times what kind of Christian, what kind of person we will be.
There is hope in the wilderness; God does not abandon Jesus there. Jesus was ministered to by the angels. When we find ourselves in the wilderness we are not abandoned as it is Jesus who tends to us.

Lent can be a wilderness season of sorts as we make time (or should make time) to examine where we are at with God. Jesus was able to answer Satan at each turn with scripture from Deuteronomy. Maybe we need to brush up on what the bible says (or doesn’t)!

A wilderness season, however challenging, will never be wasted if we believe and know that God is with us. Those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Our identity lies in being His beloved son or daughter. If we can hang on to that, then whatever the wilderness throws at us, whatever illusions we live under can be overcome.

Ash Wednesday: Shades of Grey

Ash Wednesday Reflection 2024
St Nicholas – 10:00 am P&P
Emmanuel – 7:30 pm P&P

Psalm 51:1-18
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
John 8:1-11

This print is going to be the focus of my reflection today. It was painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1565 and now hangs in the Courtauld Gallery in London. It is entitled ‘Christ and the Women Taken in Adultery.’ This Gospel story has been painted by many others but none quite like Bruegel. The most striking feature is that Bruegel painted it in different shades of grey. The greys 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? So much 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. The men closer to the front are much more exposed, a lighter grey than those at the back. Some are turning away, wanting to stay hidden, unexposed. The two men on the right are very exposed but notice their hands. One has his hands hidden under his cloak and the other’s hands are darker than the rest of his body. Their faces and mouths might say one thing yet 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. In this story Jesus is not 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. Jesus does not condemn her as the crowd did. She does not get off the hook either 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 as he had 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.
Despite David’s actions, the response to the uncovering of sin is exemplary: I have sinned against the Lord. David’s first request is for mercy. He knows that God is generous, merciful and that His love is steadfast. 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. 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 do not 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, to acknowledge where and when we have been wrong, and been sinful. Repentance literally means to turn in the other direction and commit to change. It is only through Christ and being in Christ that death and sin are defeated.

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. At the same time we can begin to raise our gaze on 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.