Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent 28th February

I have a few shelves of books in my study, and some are novels that I have had a long time. Stories by C S Forrester, and Georgette Heyer, Alexander McCall Smith and Jane Austen; these are the ones I have kept for another read, because they entertain me.  I have shelves of other books, many of which I obtained in the past 5 years. These are books about this Book; I have them so that I may delve into them for further instruction or inspiration or enlightenment on the greatest story ever told.  And it has been told, oh so many times! You see, when we read the passages from the Bible Sunday after Sunday, when we again read about the ministry of Jesus, we are not hearing any new story. The story, the narrative is unchanged. If I were to do that with secular books, reading them over and over again in a three-year rote, it would be a bit daft. For I do not read them to inspire me, or to add to my understanding of life, or how to cope in a pandemic.  People who look at Christians and the Church may well take us for daft! What, they might say, can this Bible have to say to me today in modern Britain or anywhere else for that matter? When we can access information and influence a vast array of important events at a touch from screen or keyboard, how can the stories in the Bible impact our lives?  I’m sure you heard that last week Nasa’s Mars 2020 team had success in landing ‘Perseverance’ on that planet; launched last July, it had travelled 293 million miles and touched down 1 mile from the centre of the area that had been identified as the safest landing spot. All this was awe-inspiring, but what really caught my attention in this story was that some of the team (and there were about 2000 in all) worked from home. Jennifer Trosper, deputy project manager of the Jet Propulsion Lab, worked from her utility room, putting herself on mute when her washing machine was on the spin cycle.  This may well make you smile; those of us who have been Zooming, live transmitting, attending webinars, recording, logging into Facebook rooms, well, we are all part of this changed existence! One woman, relieved that she will no longer be home schooling her children from next month is going to buy herself a teacher’s leaving present.  This is a great leveler; the way I am working, accessing the world wide web, and being in touch with my colleagues, working remotely, is just the same way that the world’s top scientists are doing things. That their programmes are likely to be vastly more complicated, I shall gloss over. The thing is, we are a changed society, a changed world. There is a new kind of pioneer ministry, building a new church in which to reach people with God’s story; I hear the words many times now – ‘Digital Church’.  How do we go from interfacing the vastness of the world around us, and see relevance in the Bible in our lives?  Jesus, like us, lived at a time of great technological advancement in construction, road building, warfare, medicine, sanitation and communication. It was in this climate of human advancement that God placed his greatest act of love for his creation, so that we might all, ultimately, hear his story. In the same way that God used the awful power of the Roman Empire for His purposes, he can use this awful pandemic to move us into new territory.  The mistake we may make is to see the Bible as the whole story; don’t get me wrong, I don’t aim to diminish it in any way as the inspired Word of God. But we need to take the story on from the time of the apostles if we are really to see ourselves as part of God’s story. So, these books on my shelves do that, they bridge a gap from then to now, and we can see how God is relevant in every age. As Rowan Williams put it: ‘Christian history shows how believers have constantly….. rediscovered and redefined the essence of [God’s story]. A Church that reflects more on why it should be grateful for its existence, is a more effective witness.’ (Why Study the Past, p144)

So, let’s have a look at a few people who have been very influential in the story of God’s people.  Augustine of Hippo lived 354-430, and he had this to say: read pg 37.  Anslem, who lived 1033-1109, was Italian, an influential man of the Church and one time Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote many letters, some 400 of them surviving today. For Anselm, ‘God is a being in which nothing greater can be thought of than that which no greater can be conceived’ Anselm seems (momentarily) to forget about the human nature of Christ, for he says that ‘since Christ is God, He is incapable of receiving any gift, and so passes it on to man.’ (Christopher Melchert,).  Martin Luther would be unknown to us if it were not for Scripture. The Spirit did not write the name ‘Martin Luther’ in Scripture as He did the name ‘Moses’ or ‘Malachi.’ But the Spirit wrote the Scriptures in Martin Luther, giving to him the convictions that made him the historical giant that he was, and propelling him into the spotlight of the ecclesiastical and national scene in sixteenth-century Germany. Without Scripture and the profound impact it had on his life, Martin Luther was just another man of his time. (PRCA website)  Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun living in the 16 Century, had said this: Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you. Though all things pass, God does not change. Patience wins all things. But he lacks nothing who possesses God; for God alone suffices.  She is also more famously know for these words: ‘Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes with which Christ looks out his compassion to the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now’ (Top 25 Quotes of Teresa of Avila).  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that German theologian who was executed by the Nazi’s had this to say: ‘The Church is her true self only when she exists for humanity; she must tell men, whatever their calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.’ (Letters & Papers from Prison, p166)

In Hebrews 11, Paul lists those giants of faith of the people of God: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Barak, Samson, David, Samuel, etc, and he says this in Chapter 12v 1: ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.’ Well, we cannot stop there. Those words have encouraged Christians throughout the ages: Paul, Peter, Stephen, Timothy, Luke, Constantine, Saint Mellitus, Basil the Great, Augustine, the desert fathers, Benedict, St Francis, Hildegard, Joan of Arc, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Steve Biko, Clement Bhatti, Sister Leonella Sgorbodi, Evelyn Underhill, Mother Theresa, Terry Waite, Desmond Tutu. Kings and Popes, poor people and rich, theologians and those who could not read, the list so long, and so many now unknown, only God knows them all, each one precious to his plan for our redemption. Clouds on clouds on clouds of witnesses. How can we not be awed by the miracle of God’s love to us, through all time?  Having taken you on a sprint through Church history, lets land back in 2021 and take another look at today’s reading: the translation we use here every Sunday is the New International Version.  This is a modern translation. I am glad, personally, that we are not called to read the King James version; that language does not roll neatly from my tongue or fall readily on my ears. Now, I’d like to read today’s Gospel story from The Message, described as ‘a contemporary rendering of the Bible from the original languages, crafted to present its tone, rhythm, events and ideas in everyday language.’ Let’s see if it gives a different perspective.  Read Mark 8: 31-38.  Does this help you look at this little event differently? Jesus had just asked the disciples ‘Who do people say that I am’, and then ‘Who do you say that I am?’ One wonders what they expected Jesus to say and do when Peter speaks out for them saying ‘You are the Christ, the Messiah.’ Certainly, it was not that Jesus would predict his own death – oh please, you cannot kill God! As Rosalind Brown puts it, ‘in today’s terms, their leader went off-message, in public, and his press officer had to act to stop him before he ruined his reputation. So Peter took Jesus aside to talk some sense into him, apparently with the collusion of the rest of the disciples, since Jesus looked at all of them before silencing their spokesman.’ We can sympathize with them, those followers of Jesus, who in their love for him wanted to stop him making a disastrous mistake. For he could prevent this, couldn’t he? He is God.  It’s easy for us, with the benefit of hindsight to understand what Jesus meant. But Peter and the other disciples were challenged to think the unthinkable, that God’s Messiah would suffer, and in that light to remain faithful to him. Paul’s assertion that no distrust made him waver, even though he had some dodgy moments, is an encouragement to us when we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, assailed by doubt and uncertainty.

There is no way we can take a casual glance through 2000 years of Christian History. Suffice to say, that in every age, there have been men and women, and children too, who have read, and reread the same stories in the Bible as we do in this age. What they have learned in their encounter with God through the touch of his Holy Spirit can give us encouragement and comfort. Lent is a good time when we can refocus our gaze on faith’s long horizon, not its short-term view.  I would like to say in closing, that I can have all these books and more on the study of the Scriptures; I can read into my old age and learn quotes and passages, but God’s Word can only really come alive if I open my heart to the Holy Spirit.  ‘Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes and I will observe it to the end,’ says Psalm119:33, or as Eugene Petersen has put that verse in The Message ‘God, teach me lessons for living, so I can stay the course.’


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