Lent 2: Genesis 12, 1-4 & (Gospel) John 3, 1-17
When I was growing up Sunday afternoon television was dominated by sport: first the Big Match, then Rugby Special, then Ski Sunday. The pattern of our viewing testifies to the nature and character of our household and its preferences. Actually, it describes my dad’s preferences, and to be honest mine, for my mother really wasn’t that bothered about sport.
Last week Phillip Tovey suggested, rightly I think, that the final temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness is to do with the nature or character of the Kingdom. Over the next three weeks the lectionary graces to us a little three-part mini-series all of its own with each episode inviting us to think about the nature of the Kingdom of God through the lens of encounter. This week the encounter is between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus. Next week we move onto the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan women at the well, before on Mothering Sunday the encounter (from the cross) between Jesus and his mother Mary.
By the end of the three-part mini-series we should have gained a far richer understanding of the nature and character of the Kingdom. By the end of the series we should have come to a set of Kingdom-Conclusions, and in doing so we ought as well to have come to a new and deeper understanding of the desired nature of the church, for the church as the Body of Christ, should be the physical and empirical manifestation of Christ. The job of the church is after all to ‘magnify his Holy Name.’
So, let me start by suggesting that by the end of our mini-series we will hopefully come to the conclusion that the Kingdom is grounded, universal, hospitable, relational and familial. Today in episode one we witness the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a devout and God-fearing Jew. He is a member of the religious, social and civic elite. He is a member of what the Book of Genesis describes as ‘a great nation.’ Nicodemus is a man who on the face of it has everything sorted. And yet Nicodemus dares, albeit under the cover of night, to question his own religious and cultural identity. Nicodemus, even at this early stage in our drama, seems to be suggesting that religion, or at least the mere observance of religious laws, rituals and protocols, can, rather than being life giving, be life limiting.
Jesus, for his part, affirms Nicodemus’, erudite Nicodemus’ suspicions, by insisting that what is needed is Spirit; that we must all be ‘born of the Spirit.’ Even at this early stage in his ministry Jesus is pointing beyond his death, resurrection and ascension and towards Pentecost. But in this first episode Jesus goes further and hints at revelations yet to come. Nicodemus, as we know is grounded in his distinct Pharisaic heritage and Jesus has no problem with this, but he also trails the idea that Jesus came not just for the Jews – or ‘to be the glory of His people Israel,’ but for all people and all nations, for the encounter ends with Jesus insisting that ‘God so loved the world (not just the Jewish world, but the world) that he gave His only Son that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life.’ Indeed, Jesus insists, in the concluding words to this encounter, that ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.'
Jesus in this encounter never denies either his own or Nicodemus' heritage as descendants of Abraham, and neither should we deny our own heritage, but he does insist that to be relationally defined solely on the basis of where and into what sort of class we were born is to miss the whole point of the Kingdom, or indeed the Church. Yes, we are to be grounded and properly parochial but we are also to be universal, hospitable, relational and familial. Radically so, for the notion that a Pharisee, a Samaritan women and a single Mum (Mary) might all be included on equal terms, as members of the Kingdom of God, is truly remarkable.
The encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus is truly remarkable and asks us to consider the extent to which we think we have got things sorted. It asks us to consider whether we are truly open to the work of the Holy Spirit and whether we believe that salvation is for people just like us, or as Jesus insists, for the sake of the entire world.
The story of the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus provides us with the invitation to develop our understanding of the character and nature of the Kingdom of God, inviting us to move beyond, way beyond, the narrow confines of protocol and narrowly defined parochialism. If we were to describe this movement in a single word, we might call it conversion or transformation of the soul. Nicodemus is an icon for such conversion. In the story we have heard today we hear of him coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness. The next we hear of Nicodemus is when he argues for Jesus in the Sanhedrin. The third and final time we encounter Nicodemus is when he assists Joseph of Aramathia with the burial of Jesus.
Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus and his subsequent conversion invites us to reflect on the extent to which we prefer the safety of protocol to the life-giving energy of the Spirit; a preference for a bounded, tribal identity, to the universality of the gospel. Like Nicodemus we must learn to develop a genuine ‘world-view,’ one which insists that Jesus came for all people and in all places as we shall see in episode two next week, Amen.
Ash Wednesday : Joel 2, 12-18; Matthew 6, 1-6 & 16-18
For the last couple of years or so, I have given up alcohol for Lent. It’s a challenge as I enjoy going to the pub and more often than not evenings with friends involve some kind of drinking. I am not afraid to say that I missed having a drink over Lent. After Easter, when people have asked me how I found the last forty odd days, I replied that I found I slept much better. That’s it. No other change. Certainly, to my shame, no mention of God. What had struck me the most about my Lenten fast was that my night’s kip was less disturbed.
I am not sure what you are giving up this Lent but if you are thinking of doing something or, indeed, have already started, take the advice in our readings this evening. Be clear why you are doing whatever it is you are doing for Lent. Whether it’s fasting, praying or taking something on, be honest enough with yourself to know what it is you are doing and why. For if it’s not to do with God, then we are not doing Lent. If you are giving up chocolate to lose weight, if you are doing more exercise to get fitter, if you are getting up half an hour earlier to achieve more, then good on you but let’s be mature enough to realise that these things are not done for God. If we are not doing these things for God, then, as good as they may be, we are not doing Lent.
Jesus rails against those who show off their piety: who shout loudly about their charity giving, who fast and make sure everyone knows it and those who pray in such a way that you can’t help but notice. They are not doing Lent either for what they seek is not God. What they really want is to get the approval of others; others who are impressed by their apparent holiness. I wasn’t doing Lent by giving up drinking. I was simply giving my liver a rest.
“Yet even now says the Lord, return to me with all your heart” that is the cry of the prophet Joel. “Return to me with all your heart”
We do Lent by returning to the Lord. Taking a consciously deliberate step to God. It is to turn away from the temptations that draw us away from God and turn to him. Not by accident but intentionally and purposefully. We can’t do things with all our heart absent-mindedly or by coincidence or with mixed motives. However, you choose to mark Lent, whatever you give up or whatever you do: do it for God.
Devote your sacrifice or commitment to God at the start of this Lent. When it’s hard, when you are tempted, offer it to God: quietly reminding yourself what you are doing and that what you doing is for God. If you succumb, don’t give up, but carry on with your devotion knowing that God forgives. You are not doing this because God demands it but because by this observance you might return to Him. To know more deeply of his presence in your life. We do it because we want to follow the example of Jesus. Jesus went into the desert for forty days where he was tempted. He went in the desert to learn what he was meant to do next with his life. He went in the desert because for him something about that place was special, where he was able to experience the divine. He did it with purpose.
That is how we return to God with all our heart. Mindfully. Purposefully. Intentionally. If we don’t, let’s not kid ourselves we are doing Lent. But if we do turn to God with all our heart, maybe this year it will be different, maybe this year instead of losing a few pounds or sleeping better or having read more we may learn the reality of the prophecy of Joel that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Now that is doing Lent.
Revd. Didier Jaquet
Baptism and Transfiguration (Matthew 17, 1-9)
I wonder how many of us feel particularly attached to our names, or in some ways think that our names capture something of the essence of our personalities; names you see have meaning. Does anyone here know the meaning of their names?
I like my name for apparently Andrew means ‘manly.’ So, there you go! In the gospel reading we have heard just now Jesus isn’t actually called by name, instead he is called ‘Son’ and ‘Beloved’, the one with whom God, the Father, is ‘well pleased.’ These words replicate the words heard at Jesus’ own baptism. The notions of baptism and transfiguration are therefore closely related. The whole purpose of baptism, and indeed the sacrament of the Eucharist, which we will be sharing in later on in the service, is to both affirm us and change us, or transfigure us, so that we like Jesus might shine, or, in the words of the Prayer of Preparation, which I increasingly believe to be one of the most majestic prayers in the liturgy, might ‘magnify His Holy name.’
In baptism God calls us by name, assures us that we too are ‘His beloved’ in whom He is ‘well pleased’ and invites us into what the Prayer Book refers to as ‘newness of life.’ Felicity is shortly going to be baptised into such ‘newness of life’ in the hope and firm expectation that she will come to ‘magnify His Holy name.’
The reason that Gwen and Robert have brought Felicity for baptism is very straightforward: they want her to know that she is loved and cherished by both themselves and the family and by God. They want her to know that her very name, like yours and mine, is held in God’s hands and inscribed in the Book of Life. And what a name Felicity is. It is a name full of nuance and meaning. I think that it is also the only name used in the Book of Common prayer as a common noun; more of this in a second or two.
Felicity means joy and happiness and as I baptise Felicity today, I know that we will all be praying for her joy and happiness. But the name Felicity also has connations of faith and hope. Felicity is a profoundly Christian name. In the prayer for the Queen in the Book of Common Prayer we pray for our sovereign lady’s ‘everlasting joy and felicity.’ I think this is a wonderful praise!
My prayer for Felicity is that as a baptised Christian her life will be grounded in the surety of love, lived with infectious joy, grounded in faith and hope, in the sincere belief that she will, therefore, live a transfigured life; one that truly ‘magnifies his Holy Name.’
Come to think of it that is my prayer for each and every one of us here today, Amen.
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