Category Archives: Lent

First Sunday of Lent: A sermon



Photo by Mimi Moromisato from Pexels

‘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.

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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.

Baptism

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.

Checklists

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.

Jesus

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.

Sin

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.

All evil

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?

God knew

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.

Amen

[For the prayer from the end of the message, see here]

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Easter Sunday Meditation 2017


Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Reading: Luke 24:1-10 (GNB)

Very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, carrying the spices they had prepared. (2) They found the stone rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, (3) so they went in; but they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. (4) They stood there puzzled about this, when suddenly two men in bright shining clothes stood by them. (5) Full of fear, the women bowed down to the ground, as the men said to them, “Why are you looking among the dead for one who is alive? (6) He is not here; he has been raised. Remember what he said to you while he was in Galilee: (7) ‘The Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and three days later rise to life.’”

(8) Then the women remembered his words, (9) returned from the tomb, and told all these things to the eleven disciples and all the rest. (10) The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James; they and the other women with them told these things to the apostles.

Meditation

The Lord is risen.
He is risen indeed!

Death is destroyed.
Victory is complete!

Death and everything that destroys has been defeated. We stand before God stripped of our human frailty, our sinfulness, our physical weaknesses. We are, instead, bathed in his love, clothed in his righteousness, filled with his Spirit.

We are not yet complete. There is still work to be done. The last movement, the final steps will take place in an instant, in God’s time. But the Easter message is that the resurrection is now. The defeat of hurt and failure and death begins today. It takes place on every step of our journey. Every day as we open ourselves to the transforming work of the Spirit.

God invites us, today, to offer him our struggles and our joys, our failures and our successes. They are not what define our journey. Our journey is not defined by our strengths or weaknesses. It is defined by our companion on the road: the risen Saviour. Acknowledge his presence, and ask him to help you journey with him, starting today.

Prayer

Lord, we cannot comprehend the resurrection, it is beyond our human understanding. But we do know that we are in your glorious hands. We journey with you. We acknowledge your victory and we surrender today those things in our lives that hinder your work, that lead to death rather than to life. Thank you for walking with us, and thank you for our destination and the welcome you have prepared for us.

Amen

This meditation was written for the Prestbury Methodist Church Lenten Diary. A collaborative project with various members of the church writing meditations for each day of Lent around a given theme.
See HERE for Easter Saturday and past years’ contributions.

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Easter Saturday Meditation 2017


Darkness

Reading: Luke 23:50-56 (GNB)

(50-51) There was a man named Joseph from Arimathea, a town in Judea. He was a good and honorable man, who was waiting for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Although he was a member of the Council, he had not agreed with their decision and action. (52) He went into the presence of Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. (53) Then he took the body down, wrapped it in a linen sheet, and placed it in a tomb which had been dug out of solid rock and which had never been used. (54) It was Friday, and the Sabbath was about to begin.

(55) The women who had followed Jesus from Galilee went with Joseph and saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was placed in it. (56) Then they went back home and prepared the spices and perfumes for the body.

On the Sabbath they rested, as the Law commanded.

Meditation

Those who knew Jesus stood and watched.
They watched him die.
They watched him being buried.
Then they went home to prepare spices to embalm the dead body of their Saviour.
And they waited for the Sabbath to end.
Just one last duty to perform.
It would be the final act. It would mark the end of their journey with him.

They had no idea.

We, too, have no idea of what God has in store for us, what awaits around the corner.

We watch, we make plans, we prepare the next step. We think we have everything under control. But like those first followers of Jesus, we really have no idea. And when things don’t work out, when someone or something puts a spanner in the works, we react, we struggle, we lose our temper.

But God has plans for us that are not dependent on success or failure in our life’s journey. God’s work in our lives does not depend on our comfort, our health or our wealth. God’s plans depend on our openness to him and availability to the Spirit whatever else may be happening.

Prayer

Lord, forgive us for thinking we can control our future and our surroundings. Forgive us when we are so focused on our detailed planning, that we miss the spontaneity of the Spirit. Forgive us for thinking that the cross is the end, rather than a new beginning.

Help us amid our struggles and tragedies to discover you in new beginnings and new relationships and to find our strength in you.

Amen

This meditation was written for the Prestbury Methodist Church Lenten Diary. A collaborative project with various members of the church writing meditations for each day of Lent around a given theme.
See HERE for Easter Sunday and past years’ contributions.


See also:
Easter Saturday Meditation 2016
Easter Sunday Meditation 2016

 

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Easter Saturday Meditation 2016


Darkness

Reading: Luke 23:50-56

There was a man named Joseph from Arimathea, a town in Judea. He was a good and honourable man, who was waiting for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Although he was a member of the Council, he had not agreed with their decision and action.  (52) He went into the presence of Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.  (53) Then he took the body down, wrapped it in a linen sheet, and placed it in a tomb which had been dug out of solid rock and which had never been used.  (54) It was Friday, and the Sabbath was about to begin. (55) The women who had followed Jesus from Galilee went with Joseph and saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was placed in it.  (56) Then they went back home and prepared the spices and perfumes for the body. On the Sabbath they rested, as the Law commanded. (Good News Bible)

Meditation

Jesus is dead.

Joseph declared himself and took charge.
The women watched and prepared.
All of creation held its breath.

And Jesus waited.

We usually think we are the ones waiting: waiting in uncertainty; waiting for the resurrection; waiting for God to act. But Jesus waits too.

He waits for you and for me.
He waits for us to declare ourselves.
He waits for us to prepare ourselves.
He waits for our worship, our actions, our preparation.
He waits for our love.

He waits because tomorrow’s resurrection is not planned for a hidden tomb in a faraway garden in a foreign land. It is planned for you and for me and for our community.

Jesus waited for the Sabbath to pass – because worship would never be the same again.

He waits for us.

Are you ready to celebrate his life? Are you ready to give him room in your heart? Are you ready for your worship, your life and your community to be transformed?

It doesn’t matter how dark the tomb of your life might be, his light will shine, his love will conquer. All you need to say is, ‘Yes.’

Prayer:
Yes, Jesus. Come into our lives, our families and our communities. Transform our worship. Bring us to life; bring our community to life; bring our world to life today. Amen

This meditation was written for the Prestbury Methodist Church Lenten Diary. A collaborative project with various members of the church writing meditations for each day of Lent around a given theme. I Seem to end up with the Easter weekend. Perhaps it’s because my mother runs the project?? See HERE for Easter Sunday and past years’ contributions. 

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Discipleship and vulnerability: A prayer for Maundy Thursday


This prayer was one I wrote for Epiphany Sunday 2013 (see here).  Christine Jerrett very kindly suggested I reblog it on Maundy Thursday – a night of shadows. Christine writes (among other things) her own beautiful prayers that are challenging, life affirming and encouraging. You can find her blog here.

I pray that this prayer will help your meditation on this night of brokenness, denial and betrayal. Thanks Christine.

Lord we love to offer you our successes,
our strengths and our achievements.
But what are they compared with your glory,
your majesty, your power?

Yet you come to us tonight, not in victory but in vulnerability.
You come in weakness, as the baby revealed to the wise men,
as the saviour on the cross who could not save himself.
You come with broken body and tormented soul.

In awe and in wonder, we gather round your table tonight.
We receive your brokenness,
and we offer to you, and to each other, our brokenness in return.
As we touch your wounds tonight, and you touch ours,
open our hearts to the wonder of your love,
and the saving power of your brokenness.

For we acknowledge that, while we may never pull a trigger in anger,
we are made of the same stuff as every other sinner:
the same fears drive us, the same selfishness, pride and greed;
We are as full of insecurities and mistrust as every sinner.

Help us to embrace our own vulnerability, our own brokenness,
so that the fruit of your love may become the fruit of our lives:
a feast for our family, our community and our world.

Amen

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Holy Week Service – Matthew 24


Our theme at Prestbury Methodist Church this year is the teaching of Jesus during Holy Week as recorded by Matthew. I was privileged to preach on Tuesday evening on Matthew 24.

SCRIPTURE:    Matthew 24:1-14; 42-44

We sang Stuart Townend’s song just now, ‘I will not boast in anything, no gifts, no power, no wisdom’.

Well, the disciples wanted to boast. They boasted in the glorious architecture of the Temple: ‘Isn’t it magnificent!’ they cried. The Romans might be in charge, but this is the real centre of power. This is what really matters.

And it was important. Whatever the world might throw at them, however difficult it might be to make ends meet, to put food on the table, to pay the rent, if the Temple was there, if Jerusalem was secure, there would always be hope.

And we are no different. We worry about the Guptas, we worry about Nkandla, we worry about inflation and interest rates, we worry about unemployment and how it will affect our children and grandchildren. But while we are complaining that this is bad, that’s bad and the whole world is corrupt, we are constantly looking for something to hold on to, something that will give us a sense of security, just as the disciples found in the Temple building. If we could just fix this; if we could just settle that; if there was less corruption, more tolerance, there would be hope.

Jesus said to his disciples, and to us, ‘You may think that these stones, this wish list, this fix will keep you safe, but none of these things will last; not a single stone will be left in its place.’

None of the things we put our faith in, none of the things that give us hope, none of them really matter, none of them is permanent. And what happens to our faith and to our hope when they are gone?

If our relationship with God depends on the Temple, what happens when it is pulled down? If our confidence and trust in God depends on our health or our security or our comfort, what happens when our health deteriorates, our security is threatened, our comfort is taken away?

The disciples were horrified at the idea that the Temple might not be as permanent or as important as they thought. So they cried out, ‘When, Lord? When?’

We need to know, so that we can plan, we can prepare, we can get ready. If we know when it will happen, we will live our lives differently; we will plan differently, we will be ready.

Every now and again, of course, someone comes along bragging that they have worked it out. They know when it’s going to happen, and they give us the date. The end is not simply near, it is set for the 17th of April, just after tea.

Now we know. We can stop working, stop shopping, stop planning. We can go up onto a mountain, down by a stream, into the wilderness or into the Temple. We can worship without distraction, meditate without worry, pray without fear.

So, tell us, Lord; when will it be?

But Jesus is emphatic: no one knows, and no one is going to know.

He does warn us, however, that the end will not come easily. The process will be like the pains of childbirth: the reward is magnificent, but you are not going to enjoy the journey. There will be war and famine and earthquakes. Our own comfort and wellbeing will be threatened. We will be arrested, punished and put to death because of our faith. People will hate us, simply because we trust in Jesus.

Jesus warns us about these things not so that we can work out which war, which famine, which earthquake is the final one. He even tells us that these things ‘do not mean that the end has come.’ No, he warns us so that we know what to expect and are not taken by surprise.

No matter what happens, Jesus is saying, hold on to your trust and faith in God, not in fine buildings, good health, security systems or healthy pensions. Many will give up their faith. But if we hold onto our faith, we will continue to live in the security of God’s presence, no matter how bad it gets. Don’t give up.

But ever since Jesus said these words we have been trying to work out which earthquake he was talking about, which famine, which war would announce the end. (I can just see the angels rolling their eyes and saying, ‘Which part of “no one knows, and no one is going to know” don’t you understand?)

But Jesus does tell one thing that will happen just before the end. We tend to ignore it. It has nothing to do with earthquakes and war and stars falling from the sky. Jesus says: ‘(The) Good News about the Kingdom will be preached through all the world for a witness to all people; and then the end will come.’

The end is not heralded by wars or famine or pain and suffering. Those things are going to happen. They will always be around us. Whether they will be any worse towards the end, Jesus doesn’t say. But instead of counting wars and famine and earthquakes, we should be looking for ways to share the Good News with people around us.

So when Jesus says, ‘You must always be ready because the Son of Man will come … when you are not expecting him’, he isn’t saying have your bags packed ready for heaven. He’s telling us always to be ready to share our faith, always to live as if the Kingdom of God is already among us. It’s not crime and corruption that matter or even our health and security. Persecution and death may be our lot. What really matters is that the Gospel is proclaimed, God’s way is demonstrated.

What has eternal significance is when our lives, what we say and what we do, begin to proclaim God’s love and faithfulness to a hurting world; when our choices and our reactions demonstrate that ‘normal’ responses, our ‘normal’ way of life, are not the only way to live – there is a better way.

In the chaos and the struggle of our lives, we are challenged to rise above the normal, to find ways to be better than normal; to stop taking offence at what we see around us, at what others are doing or saying.

That’s a phrase that challenged Jen and me in our quiet time recently: ‘Don’t take offence.’ Because we do. We take offence at what others do or fail to do; we take offence at what others say; we take offence at other drivers. It’s a normal reaction. But Christ calls us to be better than normal, to offer an alternative response, to demonstrate what the Good News looks like and what life in the Kingdom of God is like.

How about we start this Holy Week.
They are planning to put Jesus to death. There are signs it’s going to happen this week. But Jesus doesn’t want us to take offence – to scream and shout and draw our swords. He wants the love that drives him to the cross to drive our every interaction, our every relationship, our every decision; that his love should drive us this Holy week and every week, come earthquakes, war, famine or persecution, until he comes again.

‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.’

Or as Graham Kendrick writes:

‘So let us learn how to serve, And in our lives enthrone Him;
Each other’s needs to prefer, For it is Christ we’re serving.’

[We closed with Christine Jerrett’s beautiful prayer found here: Faithful, promise-keeping God]

 

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