Sermon for First Sunday in Lent 2012
1 Peter 3:13-22
Through Lent as the Body of Christ
“Man does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”
As I sincerely hope you’ve noticed, we have re-introduced the Psalm into our morning worship. [Funnily enough, given what I’m about to say, I began by typing out ‘I have re-introduced the Psalm . . .’ J] The Psalms have been the root prayers of the people of God down through three thousand years. They are prayers that are well tested as sources of comfort and hope, as well as giving us space to vent our spleen before God should we need to do so. And there is only one safe place to vent our spleen!
On the whole, those of us who like myself grew up within the Anglican church and perhaps had little by the way of Private piety would have come across the Psalms in public worship and may well have thought that that was where they belonged – but in truth the Psalms have been used every bit as much in private devotion over the centuries, and indeed they generally read best in that regard. However, there is a small group of Psalms written precisely to be said together. You may have noticed them in your Bible, psalms 120-134 – they are called ‘The Psalms of Ascent’. They were the sequence of Psalms traditionally said in sequence as the Jewish people went on Pilgrimage up to the Temple in Jerusalem on Mount Zion.
I wonder if we have the imaginative capacity to find ourselves in the scene – a group of people – going up together on this journey, three times a year, chanting these old songs of faith. A Powerful communal practise.
I want now while we hold that picture to imagine something else. Last Sunday evening, the last before Lent in many many churches something happened which I guess none of us here have experienced in our church life. As part of the liturgy everyone in church went to every other person and asks them for forgiveness for any wrong they have done them. Why do these Christians do this? Well we might say, ‘because it is good to forgive and be forgiven’ and that is very true – yet it is not something which we have practiced in our tradition, perhaps ever. Actually these Christians do this as preparation for Lent. They are Christians of the Orthodox or Eastern tradition of the church, comprising at least 1/3 of all the Christian in the world today.
I will return to the Orthodox Lent in a little while, but for now just sit for a moment or two with those two images – the community of believers going up to the Temple and chanting the Psalms and The Orthodox believers creating absolute mayhem I guess as they all make the effort to seek out everyone else to seek forgiveness. What a way to go to church, what a way to start Lent.
What both epitomize, is a Truth that many many Christians in the Western tradition have lost – that the Life of faith is Primarily something we do together. Last week when I described the idea of Covenant I took us back to one of the older covenants – where God in Covenant Love takes hold of the people of Israel in slavery in Egypt, the whole people – All of them. Our reading from Genesis speaks also of God’s covenant, this time with the whole earth “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” Taking hold of Israel is awe inspiring, but the rainbow was given as a sign that God in Covenant Love took hold of All Creation. (btw I know that some folk would like me perhaps at some stage to preach on Creation and matters to do with the Environment and I shall do so – but for now I want to build some theological foundations as most sermonizing o these topics has little to do with the faith as revealed thru the prophets, Scriptures and Apostles). God takes hold of all creation.
The writer to the Colossians says of Christ, in Him all things hold together - people pilgrimaging together chanting Psalms – people going to everyone else to seek forgiveness – all things holding TOGETHER in Christ. All of these are ringing Rebukes not to the rampant individualism of the world, but of the rampant individualism of faith in the Western Church – For The Church, the faithful people of God are called to reveal AMONGST themselves, the truth of the penultimate Psalm of Ascents, just Before they reach the Temple , How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in Unity.
It is the Common life of the people of God which is given as a light to the nations- YOU says Jesus are the Light of the world. And here we hit a difficulty for us, for in the English language, we cannot tell the difference between you and you, that’s not You and You, but you (singular) and you (Plural). Christ addresses his Disciples YOU are the light of the world. And it is re-inforced in other ways – Some of you May have flinched a little when I deliberately used non-inclusive language in the reading from the gospel. I very much understand what is at stake here, but unfortunately we can miss something important – there is a Very Significant difference between “Man does not live by bread alone” and “One does not live by bread alone” The former moves us towards a hearing that is corporate – the latter moves us Strongly towards a hearing that is individual. God spoke these words through Moses Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. 3He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. God Leading his people 40 years in the wilderness to teach them Faith. He took Everything away – Quite literally, apart from the clothes on their back and the shoes on their feet – he taught them Faith. This was a lesson of faith, for the People, not individuals. The Life of faith is Primarily something we do together
And Now in Lent, the Lesson is the same – Learning faith is the point of Lent for the people of God as it was for Jesus in the desert. God takes his people into the wilderness for forty years, he takes Us into Lent for 40 days each year. Only One does he take alone – Matthew tells us Jesus was Led by the Spirit into the wilderness to test him, to tempt him. Henri Nouwen puts it well when he says that Jesus is tempted to be relevant, spectacular and powerful “Feed yourself!!” ‘feed the world, everyone will believe in you then – yet he feeds them and as John records they started to desert him – Do something Spectacular!! – Throw yourself down from the temple. They’ll all believe in you then – but he did not even throw himself down from the Cross – Or tempting him with Power - Worship me and I will give you all the power you need.
We live in an age when most of the western church has either disappeared or succumbed to the devils blandishments – it chases after relevance – We Must be relevant to people’s lives and so to some it seems we are like the leader of the French revolution sat at the sidewalk café as the mob rushes by who cries – there are my people! I must follow them!! Or we must be spectacular – building mega churches, having the best technological tools, - Or we must be powerful – well by and large that one has expired J but it supposedly served the church well for over a thousand years and thus remains a deadly addiction should any opportunity arise – secretly we long for the church to be powerful again and seek ways to make it look so.
But Jesus rebukes The Satan with regard to these temptations, and what strikes me is this – he does not suggest another way – he never says, I’m not going to do it that way, I’m going to do it this – because the way of Jesus is simply Naked faith in God – this is what the Spirit leads him into the wilderness to learn as it had led the people of Israel into the desert for 40 years. So he fasts that he Might Learn it really Is True – man does not live by bread alone. Jesus discovers this truth in the Wilderness – Truth Laid bare.
Even the Son of God must learn FAITH and it takes him 40 days – it took Israel 40 years and even then they forgot.40 days for Jesus, 40 years for Israel. How easily we say, “I have faith”. Yet can I go without food for even a day? Can I sell even a tenth of my possessions and give to the poor? Can I lose a tenth of my dignity and associate with the outcasts of society and be known as their friends? Can I turn from the demands of the world – in trust that the world will continue to turn, and spend one brief hour a day in prayer? Oh how many many books are printed now to tell us how to get along on ten minutes a day because we are SO busy. But we are busy because we have little faith.
40 days – 40 days of Lent. And we look at Lent and wonder how it can help and often we do little about it - I mean we are very well accustomed to perhaps having shared study, but that is pretty much it – we may as Individuals come up with bright ideas. How can I sustain something for 40 days, and what is more as Jesus tells us to, without looking miserable about it? Yet The Church into which we are all baptized has told us what to do in Lent – Pray, Fast and Give Alms – common practices, meant to be done together.
I said I was going to come back to the Orthodox Church. We left them last Sunday evening – gathered together for the Vespers of Forgiveness – going round forgiving and asking for forgiveness from everyone else. Imagine that as a Start to Lent. I have said a little in the week about a Joyful Lent and Lent in the orthodox church is Very joyful – BUT we might look at it and wonder – How can they be joyful when they do THAT!! Here for example is the prayer book they use in Lent – All 700 pages as the services for Every Day are set out (without all the Psalms by the way which they recite in their entirety twice a week :) ) – and then there is the fasting – this begins two weeks before Lent with a prohibition on any meat – then the Sunday before all dairy products are ruled out. In the first week – ONLY TWO MEALS, one on Wednesday and one on Friday – after that it is eased and there so you can have one uncooked meal a day J And I could go on (by the way as is the rule with all Fasting - NEVER ON A SUNDAY!! Sunday is the day of New Creation, not the old :) ) Well we might ask, how can this be Joyful????
And the answer – because they are all in it together – praying regularly together, encouraging one another each day – they go about it Cheerfully – which is a Good Biblical Word :) Lent is Hard, if not impossible Alone – but Together it can be a journey of Joy
Through Lent as the Body of Christ. This is the title for this sermon. And so may I encourage us to recapture some of that sense of being a community of faith, sharing in faith, growing in faith, together this Lent. You may wish to come to a Lent course – we shall be exploring this theme of Life together through the Practices of faith and I hope that we shall learn far more than I have prepared through sharing our Lenten journey together.
But if you cannot make it, then there is still one thing we could Easily all do together which the Orthodox do. Every week the focus of worship is the Gospel for the coming Sunday. On your news sheet is the Gospel for next week – Let us do this one thing together – each day in preparation for next Sunday, let us read the Gospel – for this is the message of Life, for us all as the Body of Christ here. We go through Lent that we might better know Easter Joy – we go through Lent because All of Life is a preparation for Resurrection Life – and know it in our midst, together.