Second Sunday of Lent
21 February 2016
Readings: Phil: 3:17 – 4:1 Luke: 13:31 –end
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Believe it or not last Friday, the 19 February, was the third anniversary of my installation here as the Vicar. On the one hand it seems as though that time has flown by and, on the other, it seems as though I have been here forever.
Thinking back to when Vivienne and I had our third wedding anniversary we thought that we knew everything there was to know about being married but looking back on that from nearly another 20 years down the line we realise how little we really knew, and the same will probably be true in another 20 years. And I hope that I am both humble enough and self-aware enough to recognise that that is as true in ministry as it is in marriage. I know that I have changed as a priest in the last three years and I expect that in twenty years time I shall be very different again. But being open to change and to growth does not negate either who we are now or what we were before. And none of us should ever make the mistake of thinking that we are either the whole answer or the finished product.
No matter who you are, no matter how long you have been in the church or in this church, no matter how old you are we should never forget that God calls us to a lifelong journey and that none of us are there yet. Remember Simeon and Anna from a few weeks ago – they were both well on in years and had spent a lifetime around the Temple but they both recognised and proclaimed Christ when they saw him as a baby. Are we truly open to being led by God into the future or are we convinced that we are now perfect, or at least as good as it is going to get?
As John Henry Newman said: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
Lent is a time of preparing ourselves for the new things that God is doing, the in-breaking and transforming power of the resurrection – the defeat of death by dying and rising again. But the road to the resurrection is not and should not be easy. It was not easy for Jesus and as followers of Jesus we should not shirk from the reality that sometimes life is hard, the road has potholes (now more than ever it seems!) and that sometimes we need to make both a spiritual and a physical effort to get to where we want to be.
I know that is deeply unfashionable and my parents told me that they heard a vicar on their local radio essentially saying that there was no point trying to give up anything over lent, which may be sadly indicative of the state of our collective spiritual life. Nonetheless most of us know deep down that anything really worth doing in this life does take a bit of effort – athletes have to train if they want to compete, students have to study if they want to pass exams and disciples of Christ have to exercise a little bit of self-discipline in order to become more Christ-like, which is surely part of our goal.
So , during Lent we are encouraged to strip away those things which hold us back from being the people that God made us to be – to dispose of distractions, to make changes to our life and, yes, to be prepared to resist the temptation to give up and be the same as everyone else.
And it is that temptation to give up, to throw in the towel, to go with the flow, to let go of the vision of Glory and settle for second best which is such an important part of the Lenten narrative.
Last week the gospel reading was of Jesus’ being tempted in the wilderness. As Jesus underwent real physical hunger and suffering, time and again he was offered an easy way out – he could eat and drink and even enjoy earthly power if only he would take his eyes off God the Father, renounce his Sonship and his mission. Just because we are familiar with that story does not mean that we should underestimate or downplay either the reality of Jesus’ suffering as he fasted or the attractive reality of the temptation he was being offered. At any point Jesus could have given up and it is worth thinking about the meaning and impact for the world had he done so.
This week’s reading from Luke is a little less obvious, but it nonetheless concerns the temptation to give up and take the easy path, the road more travelled.
In today’s reading Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and we know from the predictions he made that Jesus knew what awaited him there – the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday would, he knew, soon give way to his arrest, trial and execution.
As Jesus travelled towards Jerusalem, he was approached by some Pharisees with a warning – they say:
“Leave this place and go somewhere else, Herod wants to kill you.”
This is no idle warning on the part of the Pharisees or idle threat on the part of Herod because we know from Luke 9 that Herod has already beheaded John the Baptist. The threat to Jesus’ life is very real – we know it, the Pharisee’s know it and Jesus knows it.
Jesus was being tempted to take his eyes from what God was calling him to and to settle for second best.
However, Jesus’ response is robust and even amusing:
“Go and tell that fox…”
Whenever we are tempted to think of Jesus as an ethereal hippy it is useful to be reminded that he could be quite cutting when the occasion required:
“Go and tell that fox – I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow and I on the third day I reach my goal. In any case I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem.”
He could give up and be ordinary but he knows that he is called to something else, something much greater – he will keep going today and tomorrow and the next day until he reaches his goal, even though he knows danger and death lay ahead.
Jesus then laments over the tragedy that has befallen Jerusalem and will befall it in the future – it is God’s chosen city, the place where his presence came to dwell in the Temple, and yet it is also the place where his prophets are killed by those in power, where his words are ignored and which is ruled over by those who are far from knowing God. Jesus say that God’s greatest desire is to gather together the children of Jerusalem like a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wing.
We are so used to having very male images of God and often very strong male images at that, but here we are offered a picture of God as a matriarchal hen gathering her chicks to safety and it is beautiful. But the tragedy is that these chicks are being ruled over by foxes like Herod, and we know what foxes do with chicks.
Finally, Jesus says that the people of Jerusalem will not see him until they cry: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” – which is the cry of the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and which, of course, is part of our liturgical cry during communion. However the people in Jerusalem allowed their cry to turn from “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” To “crucify him” within a week and we must watch ourselves, our motivations and our lives to ensure that we do not praise Jesus with one breath and deny him and crucify him with the next. How we do that is a lifetime’s work but the discipline of travelling with Jesus during Lent and not giving in to every temptation to give up is a valid and a valuable part of that lifetime’s work and don’t let anyone tell you different.
So my prayer not only for this Lent but for the whole of my ministry here is that we shall always strive to be the people that God has called us to be, recognising that we are called to change from one degree of glory to another, but that we shall ever journey together with God the Son, towards God the Father in the power of God the Spirit.