Thursday, 1 March 2012

Lent 1: Seeing God afresh. A sermon by Kevin Bright

I was listening to BBC London on Shrove Tuesday as I was driving home from work this week on and the discussion was about whether people still observe Lent.
Pancake Day still seems popular together with many pancake races all over the country but does it signify a final indulgence before a period of self denial and reflection or is it just a good reason for a bit of fun?
The Church of England commissioned some research sampling over 2000 British adults and discovered that over one fifth intended to observe Lent in some way though around one third of them hadn’t decided what they would give up or take up when the survey was conducted around 10 days prior to Ash Wednesday.
Women were more likely to observe Lent than men (27% versus 20%), with age-based observance peaking, perhaps surprisingly, among the 18-24s (30%). Does this suggest that Lent is making a comeback?
Of the 68% planning to observe Lent in 2012 who had also got as far as deciding what they would do the most popular choices were as follows
 ■Try to do more positive/kindly acts (21%)
 ■Give up chocolate or other treats (17%)
 ■Stop shopping for non-essential items (17%)
 ■Give money to charity (10%)
 ■Take up doing something spiritual like praying or reading the Bible (9%)
 ■Stop swearing (9%)
 ■Give up alcohol (8%)
 ■Cut back on social media/gaming (7%)
 ■Volunteer for a charity (7%)
 ■Stop smoking (6%)
 ■Something else (4%)                                  
The radio programme read out all sorts of calls, emails, texts and tweets saying what people were planning on giving up or doing, one even stating that he was giving up religion for Lent!
The clear message is that many people want to use this point in the Christian calendar as a catalyst for something positive. Giving up booze or treats can only be a good thing but having regained our self discipline we often find that we can go further and deeper and ask ourselves really challenging questions like what am I here for, what really matters to me?
In Mark’s gospel we heard ‘as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart’. What could that mean? In physical terms I can only imagine the clouds and skies parting to reveal something otherwise unseen. The imagery might be a starting point but we need to go much further than that to realise that it’s about a whole new dimension in our relationship with God. It’s challenging to find the right words because it can be a personal thing but some may have glimpses in such moments as when they suddenly realise that God has a purpose in their life, for others it may come from a sense of knowing that they are truly loved by God in the same way that Jesus heard at the time of his baptism.
As we go through lent let’s heighten our awareness of those moments when heaven is torn apart for us, when we can see things afresh, often uncovered by breaking the routine that allows us to relax into our indulgences.
Mark’s gospel points the way. Its direct punchy style is like a shaft of sunlight highlighting a single object. Our attention is focussed on Jesus and what Lent can be about for those of us too absorbed in daily routines to see it for ourselves.

Jesus urges us to draw closer to God when he invites us to ‘repent and believe in the good news’. At the beginning of lent this might mean stop doing what you know is wrong or get off your backside and do those things you keep meaning to get around to and do it because you trust in me and believe that I am the good news.

When we travel back to the events in Genesis we find more reasons to trust God as we hear how he makes his covenant with creation after the flood, not just with Noah and his descendants, not even all future human beings but with every living creature. It’s a reminder to us to look beyond ourselves, beyond the human obsessions expressed through our media and rediscover the connection between humanity and all else God has made.
When I was quite a bit younger I went camping in Australia with some locals who had become friends. They told me that wherever possible if you get bitten by a spider try and catch it so you can get the correct anti-venom, particularly if it’s a funnel web spider mate. I awoke in the early hours of one morning to feel something quite big crawling across my face, not being sure if he had bitten me whilst I slept I thought I’d better catch him or her so I closed my hand around the creepy intruder and found my torch. As I gingerly opened my hand I was relieved to see that it was the largest cricket I’ve ever set eyes upon, with some relief I flung it out into the night and tried to get off to sleep. 
I was reminded of these events when I read the part where Mark tells us that Jesus ‘was with the wild beasts’. I suspect that there were hazards above and beyond poisonous spiders and the thought of living outdoors for 40 nights with wild animals prowling around is hardly one that would let most of us get a good nights sleep. There is a sense that Jesus is plunged into a time where the safety nets of dwellings and people to protect him have been removed. With all else stripped away he is back to the state where he must rely upon God, trust him and accept his will.
We know that it goes against our natural instincts to move away from what we know, what we feel safe with even when called to do so but Jesus shows us that at certain times it is the right thing to do.
Whilst Mark’s gospel doesn’t talk of fasting nor of specific temptations as Matthew and Luke do we hear a confident sounding Jesus arrive in Galilee to begin his ministry after his time in the desert. It is clear that time spent in the wilderness offers us potential to grow closer to God if we are prepared to let go of some of our routines and make time where we can be open to his message.
For most of us entering the wilderness will not mean camping out in the cold but we will need to find space where pretence fades away and honest vulnerability becomes possible. Public image will become unimportant and we will find freedom to confess the sometimes complicated and messy reality that is our lives. Maybe the temptations we have to overcome should focus more towards our fundamental attitudes, for example our inclination to turn a blind eye to the needs of some, or our willingness to exploit each other.
Of course some of our wildernesses are not of our own choosing. Wildernesses are thrust upon us or it may seem we are thrust into them. Challenges in life can often make us see how vulnerable we are, and whilst it’s not always obvious at the time, we will come to a point where it is clear that we worship a God who keeps his promises.
We know from experience that our faith does not spare us suffering and distress but we also know that our path has been trodden by Jesus before and that he is still there to share it with us today.
My prayer is that Lent will be a journey where the heavens may be parted for each one of us, that we may see God afresh and arrive at Easter knowing that like Jesus, we are God’s beloved children and with us he is well pleased.

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