[A prayer for Sunday 21 February 2021 To listen to the sermon and the prayer, click here]
Lord, you know us far too well. Better than we know ourselves; Better than we want to know or be known.
We are not proud of our lives. Oh, yes, there are things we have done and things we have achieved. But we have failed some of the more important tests:
We have not been the loving children we could have been; We have not been the loving parents or partners we could have been.
We have been chasing dreams instead of creating memories. Looking for treasure instead of building relationships. We have lived fearfully, hoarding what we have. Yet you have called us to live generously as you have lived with us, To give, so that we can receive and give again.
You know us so well, Yet you remain our loving heavenly Father; Full of love for us, full of joy at the possibilities you see in us; Delighted to spend time with us.
Jesus, our friend and brother, Our Saviour and Lord, We want to walk with you on this Lenten journey. Help us to turn from our sins and renounce those things that destroy relationships; that create barriers among us; that separate us from you.
Help us find ways to connect with you and connect with one another in these strange times. Help us share one another’s burdens, Share each other’s pain, and walk with each other towards the light of resurrection to discover our place within your family.
‘Do you repent of your sin and renounce all evil?’ The first question asked at Baptism. But the Christian life is not a checklist of dos and don’ts. It is a journey into relationship. The journey may not begin with repentance, but with a welcome.
Lent and the virus
Today is the first Sunday of Lent.
It is a period (traditionally) of fasting until the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.
‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ was a common question when I was growing up. Most of the time it was (reluctantly) sweets and chocolates.
Some would say that this year we have been forced to give up worshiping together, we have given up hugs and holding each other close. You could say we have given up the lower half of our faces!
But we must not think that these constitute the essence of worship or the only signs of friendship. They are just what we are used to, how we are used to worshiping and showing affection.
So, this virus is challenging us to change our pace and to find new ways to worship, to engage with each other and to care for those who are struggling.
In the same way, the period of Lent calls us to change our pace and challenges us to find new ways to live and to express our faith – to learn new ways in which we can draw closer to Jesus and draw others to him and to his family, the church.
But we must be sure that the new things are rooted and ground in our faith. So, what better place to start than with our baptism, our coming into the family of God? Traditionally, Lent is a time to prepare new members for baptism on Easter Sunday.
And the first question put to candidates for baptism or Confirmation is ‘Do you repent of your sin and renounce all evil?’
This isn’t a very happy question, of course.
The second question is much more comforting: ‘Do you trust in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?’
However, while we would much rather spend time thinking about Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, today we are going to concentrate on the first question: ‘Do you repent of your sin and renounce all evil?’
Having a series of questions and answers about our faith does help us remember the basics, but it can also be a trap.
Like most people, we Christians like to take the easy route. We take the wonders of awesome God, the challenging words of scripture and the mysteries our faith and we cut them down to size and package them in bite-sized pieces – usually in the form of a list of what’s allowed and what is not, of who is in and who is out.
We translate ‘the way of Jesus’ into a checklist of do’s and don’ts.
And even these powerful questions of our baptism are reduced to some sort of test – get them right and you’re in. Tick here if you want to go to heaven.
Repent and renounce
So, our question today, ‘Do you repent of your sin and renounce all evil?’ is treated as an entrance requirement. If you do, you’re in. If not, well, come back when you’re ready.
Personally, I don’t think this question should be first on the list for people who are coming into faith.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that sin isn’t real and that it doesn’t separate us from God. It is real and it does. I’m also not suggesting that repentance and renouncing evil isn’t part of the deal – it is. It’s an essential part of our relationship with God, our journey with God. I am just not so sure that it comes first.
Sin and holiness – light and dark
There is absolutely no doubt that there is sin and evil in the world, and that there is a fair amount of it in the hearts of each one of us. It is equally true that sin and holiness cannot mix; God and evil cannot coexist. We cannot bring evil into the Kingdom of God; we cannot continue to sin, do those things that hurt God or his creation and expect to live happily in his family.
You can’t bring darkness into a lightened room. When the light goes on, darkness disappears. That’s how it is. You can block the light with furniture and create shadows where the light is hidden, but where there is light, there is no darkness.
So, when I suggest there might be a problem with this question, it’s not because repenting and renouncing evil aren’t important. They are; they’re essential. But they don’t always come first like we think they do. And sometimes, the way we understand them gets in the way of everything else.
We tend to see repentance as an entrance requirement. You have to do this if you want to come in. If you don’t wear a mask and you don’t sanitise your hands, you’re not coming in.
Repent, turn away from evil, then God will consider your application for adoption.
Jesus doesn’t seem to have understood repentance and renouncing evil like that.
For Jesus, it is part of the package of Good News, part of what we do on the journey. For us, it becomes a barrier to entrance.
‘You support abortion, you’re divorced, you’re rude, arrogant, cheeky; you drink too much, gamble, cheat on your spouse, lie, steal …. God doesn’t want you like that,’ we say. ‘Come back when you’ve sorted your life out.’
The prodigal son
But if we look at the stories Jesus told and his actions around sinful people, we find quite a different approach.
The prodigal son wasn’t asked whether he had really repented or had only come home because he was hungry. The father didn’t care. That’s a question the older brother would have asked, not the father. His son was home, and he welcomed him with open arms and a fatted calf. He didn’t give him a list: ‘Tick these boxes, and then we’ll have a chat about whether you fit in. And, of course, your older brother will have to approve.’
None of that. The father threw a party and gave him a place of honour in his heart and in the home.
And the older brother? Those of us who are ‘older’ in the faith? God doesn’t ask our permission before opening the doors of his heart, before welcoming sinners and backsliders.
We, too, have a place in God’s heart, but we’d better get used to the idea that we share that place with all the other children God loves and calls his own. And that, without our prior approval.
Woman caught in adultery
Then there is the woman caught in adultery. We like to emphasis the fact that Jesus told her to go and sin no more. But that was after he said, ‘I don’t condemn you.’
He didn’t give her a conditional certificate of forgiveness: ‘If you promise to stop sinning, I’ll forgive you. And if you do stop, well, then we’ll make this forgiveness permanent.’ [like employment & probation]
For Jesus, forgiveness is unconditional. And the crazy thing is, it comes first.
We think about sin as a list of dos and don’ts, and we must try to get as many of them right as possible.
The Bible looks at sin as to how it affects our relationships, both with God and with others. Again and again, God shows us he is interested in relationships not rightness, not ticking boxes. He doesn’t say, ‘I’ll let you in if you do it like this.’
Instead, he says, ‘Come and join the party.’
Past versus possibilities
You see, God is interested in our possibilities, not our past.
We ask, ‘What has this person done? How bad are they?’ and we start closing doors.
God asks, ‘How can I help this person shine?’ and he opens doors to new possibilities.
You see, God believes in the good news, in the power of the Gospel. He takes it seriously. I don’t think we share that faith quite so much.
God believes that if you come to his party, you won’t be able to help yourself; you’ll want to stay.
The pearl and the treasure
Jesus said we don’t need to force people or tell them to sell everything and to let go of their past. If they just get a sniff of that pearl beyond riches, if they just get a glimpse of that treasure hidden away, they won’t be satisfied with anything else. They won’t be able to help themselves. They’ll get rid of everything, just to have that treasure, just to own that pearl.
I don’t think we really believe that so much. We think God’s holiness has to be protected somehow; that the good news is so fragile it needs to be kept back. So, we stand at the door with a list of requirements. And repenting of sin and renouncing all evil is top of the list. If you want what God offers, if you want to join this family, if you want a piece of the Good News, you have to tick these boxes.
But, friends, we have to be very careful here because the question is ‘Will you … renounce all evil.’
The truth is we don’t know half of it.
I was a 14 year-old kid when I gave my life to Jesus. I repented of sin and renounced all evil. Of course I did. I’d heard about the party. I’d had a glimpse of the treasure. I knew what the pearl looked like.
But, at that point, I didn’t have any idea of just how much evil I was capable of. I wanted to follow Jesus; I wanted to let go of all evil. But I hadn’t even begun to do evil. Sin (real sin) had hardly had any chance to rear its ugly head in my life. What did I know about sin and evil and of its power and destructive force; of how much I would hurt those around me and destroy relationships? What did I know?
But I want to tell you this. God knew. He knew. He knew not how bad I’d been – that was nothing – he knew how bad I was going to be. And he still loved me and welcomed me with open arms.
You see, God believes in the power of his love. He knows that it is his love that will rescue, heal and give new life even to the worst of us.
So: ‘Do you repent of your sin and renounce all evil?’
It doesn’t mean will you promise never to sin again, never to entertain evil. Because, trust me on this, you are going to mess up. Some of you will mess up in ways you could not imagine. But God knows. Your baptism wasn’t a mistake. God accepting you into his family wasn’t a slip, like your neighbour’s Takealot order coming to you instead. You are meant to be here; you are wanted.
Our baptism is a reminder, not to God (he doesn’t need a reminder) it’s a reminder to you and to me that we are already part of the family of God, showered with his love. And nothing we can do will ever change that.
Do you want to share in this journey?
So, don’t be frightened by the question, do you repent of your sin and renounce all evil? And let’s be sure not to use it as a weapon against others.
It simply means, do you want to share in this journey; do you want to walk with one who loves you so much? He will walk with you through the ups AND the downs. He will never leave you.
Let me invite you to use this time of Lent, this quiet, separated Lent, to reflect on God’s love and find new ways to relate to him; find new ways to let go of the things that separate you from God and from the people around you; find new ways to connect with God and with the rest of his beautiful (and crazy) family.
How about five minutes a day reading the Prestbury Methodist Church Lent Diary (ask me for a copy, if you like) or a devotion of your own?
How about five minutes a day reading through the Gospel of Mark or John?
The journey begins today. It is a difficult one, scary even, but it ends in the victory of resurrection and the glory of God.
Blessing to you all.
[For the prayer from the end of the message, see here]
Lord we do feel as if life has been held hostage. Around every corner, there seems to be another obstacle — Barriers that stand in our way, trip us up and challenge our faith.
Lord we confess that our hope is not fully in you, Our faith is not in your loving power at work in the world.
We so often put our faith elsewhere. We put our hope in a new president, In the activities of politicians, In the work of scientists overcoming Covid-19, In the improvement of the economy and our finances.
But while we pray for all these things, Only you can save us, give us hope and bring us safely through. Remind us, Lord, that your gift and our goal is not health and happiness in this world, It is not wealth and peace and security.
Your gift is eternal life, a place in the family of God; You give us the gift of love and caring relationships, The gift of discovering Christ at work in the world, Finding the presence of God in the lives of people around us, And bringing hope to desert places.
Though battered and bruised by the challenges we face, Though afraid of what the next day might bring, Though weary and desperate for rest, Give us eyes to see you, a heart to receive you and courage to share our joy.
Help us to challenge our own and our neighbour’s fears With the sure and certain hope that God is at work, That those who hold life hostage are being defeated, And that flowers are blooming even in our wilderness.
In Jesus’ name,
A prayer for Sunday 13 December 2020 To listen to the sermon and the prayer, click here
Are you the one? John’s disciples asked it of Jesus, and we ask it of our day-to-day ‘heroes’ we hope will set us free — will this President fix the economy (and Covid-19)? Will this Lotto ticket win? But there is only One, and he promises that ‘whatever it is that holds life hostage is about to be defeated.’
Prepared for the Scottsville Methodist Fellowship, Pietermaritzburg, 13 December 2020 (Third Sunday in Advent)
For the prayer from the end of the message, see here
Lord, your love for us is revealed in so many practical ways. You touched the leper, welcomed the outcast, blessed the children and responded to a mother’s cry. You loved even those who rejected you, and you gave your life for every one of our sins. And you call us to love. You declare that our love for others is your love in action.
Lord, we confess that we limit your love. We love those we like And we turn away from those we fear, those who challenge us, those who oppose us. We limit our loving to what we think we can cope with, have time for and can afford and that will not overwhelm us.
Yet we have the grace of God in our hearts and the resources of heaven at our disposal. Teach us, Lord, to love bravely, to love more widely and to love more passionately.
We pray for our Covid-19 world: For those finding a way forward and for those caring for the sick and quarantined, for vaccines and treatment programmes, for those who have lost loved ones and those who have lost jobs and homes and their sense of security.
We pray for America as it goes into one of the most challenging of elections on 3 November. And we pray for South Africa as we look for a way forward from the corruption, anger and conflicts that dominate our lives.
Help us to love so that the world will discover a better way to live.
What are you going to leave behind? And I don’t mean houses and bank balances. But how will you be remembered?
Of course, we don’t like to answer that question, because we know all too well what some people in our lives are going to remember. So, we prefer to answer a slightly different question: ‘How would you like to be remembered?’ No doubt we’ve all got ideas about that.
But that suggests another question, doesn’t it? What are we doing about it? How are we living and engaging with people so that they will remember us as we want to be remembered? What really matters? What should we be focussing on?
Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the desert for 40 years. He brought them to the banks of the Jordon river and the edge of the promised land. Over ‘there’ was home. But not for Moses. His job was to get them there. The task of conquering and settling the land was for the next generation led by Joshua.
How would Moses be remembered? He was certainly remembered as the one who brought them out of slavery and into a covenant relationship with God. But what would they do with that legacy? Would they remain faithful to the covenant, or would they abandon all that Moses had taught them?
Perhaps Moses wondered about that as he gazed across at the promised land.
How will you and I be remembered?
The greatest commandment
Jesus tells us that the best thing to be remembered for is loving God and loving others.
The Sadducees had failed to trip Jesus up, so the Pharisees wanted to have a go. One of their number asked Jesus: ‘Which is the greatest commandment in the law?’
We often ask about the best thing to do. ‘What’s the best decision I can make in this situation?’ ‘What should I study first for my exams?’ ‘What’s the best car to buy?’
And in Pharisee school, the students and their tutors were always arguing about which commandment was the most important. Hence the question to Jesus: ‘Which is the greatest commandment?’
Now we might have different opinions about that.
If you were to ask a parent which is the greatest, most important command they might say, ‘Honour your father and mother, that you may live a long life.’
A judge would say, ‘Do not give false testimony.’ And your boss: ‘Do not steal.’
Your neighbour might point to the tenth commandment: ‘Do not covet your neighbour’s wife, house or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’
And, with churches closed during the Covid-19 lockdown, perhaps church treasurers might say that the most important command is, ‘Bring your tithes and offerings into the House of the Lord.’
Love God and love your neighbour
When Jesus was asked, he did not choose one of the Ten Commandments. It is as if he were telling the Pharisees, and us: ‘These ten commandments cannot be split up. You can’t pick and choose. One is not more important than the other.’
‘The greatest command is found in Deuteronomy 6:5, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.” Then he said, ‘The second is like it (Leviticus 19:18): “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” ‘The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on (can be understood in the light of) these two commandments.’
If you want to know what is right and wrong, what you should or shouldn’t do in a particular situation, you could check against the Ten Commandments, or you could check through the list of 613 commandments the rabbinic tradition held to. But Jesus said that we should rather ask, ‘Will this action or attitude be an expression of my love for God or for my neighbour?’
Whose son is he?
Then Jesus asked the Pharisees a question of his own: ‘What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?’
Of course, ‘whose son is he?’ was a question that had been asked before about Jesus: In Mark 6 and Luke 4, Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth, and he preached in the synagogue. The people said: ‘But, isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph …? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’‘Whose son is this?’ And they rejected him.
And the way Jesus answers his own question suggests that where we come from, our family background or where we live, or even what we have done or failed to do, is not particularly important. What matters is how we live: how we relate to God and how we relate to others.
None of us is any good at sticking to the rules.
The Psalmist says, ‘There is no one who does good, not even one.’ (Psalm 53:3) And Paul writes: ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’ (Romans 3:23)
It doesn’t matter whether we take the Ten Commandments or the 613 from the rabbis, or any other list of dos and don’ts. We are going to fail. And if that is how we are remembered, our friends will say, ‘He kept 527 of the commandments.’ While our enemies will say, ‘He failed 86 of them.’
But is that what really matters? Jesus says, ‘No.’
How much better to say of someone, ‘She didn’t always get it right, but you could see her love for God, shining in her face.’ Or ‘He wasn’t a saint, but you knew that everything he did, he did because he really loved people.’
Jesus makes it clear that the rule that holds everything together, that demands our absolute attention is ‘Love God’, and tied up so closely with it that they become one thing: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’
‘Love your neighbour, not as somebody who is different from you, not as someone who is separate from you; love your neighbour as if they were you.’
Rules are about what I can do and what I can’t do. Love isn’t about me at all. Love is about what God wants and what my neighbour wants.
Loving God means we put aside our lives and become involved with what God is doing. And Jesus makes it clear that our love for God and our involvement in his work can only be expressed in our love for others.
He said it again in the upper room in John 13: he gave his disciples a new commandment, to love one another. He said, ‘By your love for one another, the world will know that you are my disciples.’ And later he prayed, ‘that they might be one, so that the world will believe.’ In his first letter, John made it even more clear: ‘How can you say you love God whom you have not seen, if you do not love your brothers and sisters whom you have seen?’
Friends, there are many things we as Christians can do in the world to make the world a better place. But if we do not love each other, if we do not find a way to work together, we will not be doing the work of God.
We will be doing good things, certainly, but we will not be living as Christ followers. What we do will not turn the world upside down. What we do, however great, however important, will not bring people into the Kingdom. It is how we do it, how we live and how we love, that will transform our neighbourhoods, our communities and our world.
When we make Christianity more about rules, what we are allowed and not allowed to do, we burden ourselves with guilt because of our many failures. And we dare not let anyone know, because everyone else seems so perfect.
So, we put on masks, then no one will know what we are really like. Not the Covid-19 masks that just mask our face, but those that mask our nature, that cover our failure.
Social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, tends to be one big rollercoaster of health, happiness and all-round success. Very much like the way we present ourselves in church, where we keep smiling and pretending all is well.
One writer put it: ‘Sometimes, church is the last place where people feel free to be themselves. They cover up with Sunday clothes and Sunday smiles.’ [Sarah Young (2004), Jesus Calling, October 19]
How can we love each other if we don’t know who we are, if we don’t know whether the person we are engaging with is a real person or just a façade?
We create so many barriers between us: Race, gender, age, culture, wealth, where we live, even how we worship. We use these things to divide us, to help us decide who we like and who we will mix with and listen to.
Our differences are not the problem. God has given us our differences as a gift to enrich our lives and the world in which we live.
The problem is that we have chiselled our differences into the concrete walls we build between us. We might not know quite what we believe, but we know what we don’t believe and who we don’t believe and what we don’t like and what we won’t put up with.
When we hear about the confrontation at Senekal or protests around the country, it is easy to take sides. Based on our experiences, our preferences, and which side of the wall we are on, we assume that we know who is right and who was wrong.
Your neighbour needs you
But Jesus says, ‘Your neighbour needs you.’ Our neighbour on the other side of that concrete wall needs us. And it doesn’t matter whether it is our wall or their wall, our neighbour needs our love. Not our wisdom, not our clever remarks, not our solutions, and not our opinions. Our neighbour needs our love.
But we are afraid of what is on the other side of that wall. So, we start asking the questions that the opponents of Jesus asked him, like:
‘Who is my neighbour?’ ‘Which is the greatest commandment? What should I be doing first? What’s the most important thing?’
And the answer Jesus gives us reminds me of a question Phillip Yancy refers to in one of his books: ‘What would grace look like now.’
As we peer over the concrete wall between us and our neighbour, between us and our children, our spouse, our colleague, what would love look like. How can I offer grace?
And if we are not sure what the loving thing to do might be, perhaps we will find inspiration in a basket of fruit, which is always well received: ‘The fruit of the Spirit,’ Paul tells us, ‘is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ (Galatians 5:22-23)
Pick one and offer it to your neighbour today.
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. And love your neighbour as you love yourself.’