Tag Archives: Lent

Bright Sadness (A Holy Week sermon)

Readings
Isaiah 50.4–9a
Philippians 2.5–11
Matthew 27.27–61

 

This time last year, some of us were in Israel, walking streets that Jesus walked and gaining new inspiration for our journeys of faith.

I found one of the greatest places to be was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It’s a sprawling place, with surprises around every corner. It’s one of the sites associated with the crucifixion of Jesus. Perhaps it really is where he was put to death, and buried; perhaps not.

It was pretty crowded, and it was frustrating to navigate; so I think my report of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre might strike a note of disappointment if it wasn’t for one wall, a wall of mosaics. It is a more contemporary mosaic, which was placed by the Greek Orthodox Church.

I took a few photos …

This scene depicts ‘The Deposition from the Cross’. We have Mary the mother of the Lord and Joseph of Arimathea supporting Jesus’ body, Mary Magdalene and the Apostle John kissing his hands, and Nicodemus removing the nails while the other women stand, weeping.

Mosaic 1

 

In the next part of the mosaic, Jesus’ body is laid out on the burial cloth ready to be shrouded.

Mosaic 2

In the third and final scene, Jesus is being laid in the tomb.

Mosaic 3

This is a stunningly beautiful mosaic. I stood before it in speechless wonder for a long time.

Let me point out two things. The first is the sorrow. Just look at the faces.

Closeup 1

 

Closeup 2

 

Closeup 3

 

Even the angels weep!

Angels

 

The sorrow of Holy Week is profound. The loss is absolute, and it is felt even by the powers of heaven.

Jesus had healed the sick and brought sight to those who could not see.
But they crucified him.

He was the promised Messiah.
But they crucified him between two thieves.

He was going to bring in the kingdom of God.
But they crucified him on Golgotha, the Place of a Skull.

Now everything was gone. It had seemed so wonderful at the beginning of the week, but now it seemed a strange dream. What were all the palms for, all the cheers and the crowds and the shouts of ‘Hosanna, Save us Lord!’?

Save us? He couldn’t save himself.

The sorrow of Holy Week is profound, and we shouldn’t try to downplay it.

Remember I said I had two things to point out about this mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? The deep sorrow is the first.

The second is this: the vibrant colours. This mosaic is a complete riot of colour. There are reds, blues, greens, oranges, purples. Oh, and lots and lots of gold.

Don’t you think it really should be more subdued?

I mean, come on, this is a scene of unrelenting sorrow, of cosmic sorrow. But it’s ablaze with colour!

What’s that about?

It’s about Easter. We can imagine that as Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, John and the others took Jesus’s lifeless corpse from the cross and laid it in the tomb that there was no light for them. Everything was grey. Perhaps Mary wondered if the sun would ever rise again.

Yet the dawn of Easter Day was just a few short hours away, it was just over the horizon.

What we see in this mosaic is no created light. It is Easter light, the light of the resurrected One. We see utter and inconsolable sadness, while the light of Easter shines upon the people without their being aware of it.

Some people speak of Lent as a time of ‘Bright Sadness’. Bright sadness.

It’s a time of sadness, which we should not try to diminish or avoid. Christ went to the cross to save his people. He died to being us back to God. He died on our behalf.

How can we minimise the death of God’s very Son? Well, we can try, by ignoring it, by commercialising Easter, by only going to Easter services if we feel like it. But we shouldn’t try to do that. And really, nothing we do or fail to do will ever truly minimise the horror of this week.

But Lent, and above all Holy Week, is a bright time too. Over it the light of Easter shines. Salvation is ours. Our sadness is illuminated by the joy of Christ’s resurrection.

Bright sadness is not optimism. It’s not about being a ‘glass half full’ kind of person. It’s not ‘looking on the bright side of life’, or ‘walking on the sunny side of the street’. Bright sadness is faith that the light of Easter shines in all situations. Bright sadness is faith that even death itself is not a full stop, but only a comma.

Bright sadness doesn’t avoid the sadness! It means that at this time of year above all others, we recognise the great price our Saviour paid, we acknowledge our shortcomings and sins, and we lift our voices in grateful praise. And this time of year reminds us to live to God at every time of the year.

This wall mural speaks to us of bright sadness. Can we embrace this bright sadness? We surely can, and we must. It is God’s gift to us, for the sake of Jesus our Lord and for the world that needs his peace, his justice and his reign as servant-Lord of all.

 

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Walking contradictions (Ash Wednesday, Year A, 5 March 2014)

Reading
Matthew 6.1-21

Here we are once more, it’s Ash Wednesday and Lent begins again. I think it’s the eighth time we’ve had an Ash Wednesday service. Yet it still strikes me that the way we enter Lent is odd when you look at the Gospel Reading set for this day. Jesus says:

Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.… whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Yet here we are, not one of us in our room with the door shut. We are gathered together. We see who’s here. And who is not.

And Jesus says,

whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret…

We’re not exactly going to disfigure our faces, but—a smudge of ash is never going to be a fashion statement, is it?

We are walking contradictions. We gather when we should stay in our room. We put ash on our face when we should look squeaky clean. The charge of hypocrisy always dogs our steps. How do we escape?

Our first instinct is to escape the charge of hypocrisy by trying harder. We want to be right, so we walk the walk and talk the talk. Too often we do it too loudly. We become like the person without love that St Paul talks about:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Our own efforts lead us to a dead end.

If we fast, even if it’s just giving up choccies, it’s hard not to look at ourselves. Will I lose a kilo or two over Lent? Will I avoid having to buy a bigger size? Will my doctor be pleased with my blood sugar next time?

I suspect we can’t really avoid some of these thoughts. But we put them to one side, to fast with Christ. We are called to fast to deny ourselves, and put our attention on him and his needy people.

We’re also called to pray. When we pray, it’s hard to let go of distracting thoughts. So we put them aside, perhaps by imagining them floating down a stream. And it’s hard for some of us to avoid checking how well we’re going. I’m praying much better now! I think. Am I really?

We’re called to give. Not so we can be proud. But because we have so much more than so many do, and we can share.

The journey of Lent teaches us that Jesus Christ has walked the way before us; that he accompanies us on the way; that we go in the right direction as our eyes are fixed on the goal rather than on ourselves.

The story of humanity is that we have each fallen short. Each one, except Jesus Christ. So let’s keep our focus on Jesus.

The next step we take will be to pray a version of the Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem, a Syrian saint who lived in the 300s. Remember—as we do, we focus on Jesus Christ.

Lord of our life,
take from us the spirit of laziness, discouragement,
lust for power and idle talk.
Instead grant to us, your servants,
the spirit of purity, humility, patience and love.
Merciful God,
grant us the grace to be aware of our own sins
and refrain from judging others;
for you are blessed forever. Amen.

 

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If you are God’s child…—Lent 1, 17 February 2013 (Year C)

Readings
Deuteronomy 26.1–11
Luke 4.1–13

 

Today, we heard the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, but—what happened just before that?

Jesus was baptised, that’s what. This is how Luke tells that story (3.21–22):

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

In the Gospel stories, “a voice from heaven” is the Voice of God. God says to Jesus, “You are my Son…”

And just over the page, the Devil says to Jesus in the wilderness:

If you are God’s Son…

“If” is a big word. The seeds of doubt are trying to be sown. But Jesus responds with words of Scripture. He says,

It is written…

One does not live by bread alone.

Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

Jesus counters temptation with Scripture in the wilderness. He is God’s Son, and he comes through unscathed.

Today, we baptised E and E, and in doing that we declared that they are united with Jesus Christ and therefore daughters of God. And we can say the same of every baptised person here today.

But sooner or later, everyone who has been baptised finds themselves in the wilderness. Am I really a daughter of God? Could I be part of God’s family? Surely I’ve done wrong things, I’ve doubted too much, I’m not good enough. Soon it becomes It’s a load of hooey, I don’t believe all that kind of thing any more.

When Jesus was baptised, God declared him to be God’s Son. And we have authority given by God to declare E and E to be adopted daughters of God.

We’re declaring this right at the beginning of Lent. Lent is the forty-day period that we set aside for self-examination. Why is Lent forty days long? Because Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days.

So in this time of self-examination the question is not, Are E and E really children of God? but How are God’s children meant to live? How are we going to teach E and E?

In Christian Tradition, there are three ways we mark the time of Lent: prayer, fasting, and giving to those in need (or almsgiving).

In more contemporary language, these things are all about reassessing our priorities. How do we reassess our priorities in Lent?

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The kindness of God—Ash Wednesday, Year C (13 February 2013)

A very short meditation.

 

Let me start with a verse we don’t read on Ash Wednesday, Romans 2.4:

Do you not realise that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

This is a very helpful verse, one to remember always. It tells us of a goal—repentance—and the way to get there—accepting God’s kindness. ‘God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.’

The journey through Lent has a goal—a goal of repentance, of changing our minds so that we have the mind of Christ.

But: we don’t repent so that we ‘get’ the mind of Christ. Through the Spirit within us, God gives us the desire to receive the mind of Christ. So we repent because we realise just how kind almighty God is to us.

Let me put it this way: there are three easy words to remember when we pray: thanks, please, sorry. I used to think that there was an order I was meant to say them in:

  1. Sorry—I repent, so God will listen to me
  2. Please—I ask for forgiveness
  3. Thanks—for this new life

But I now think there’s no particular order, it depends on human need. But if any order does make sense, it may be this:

  1. Thanks—for giving us your Son
  2. Sorry—I messed things up
  3. Please—help me to live a life of thankful obedience

In giving us Jesus Christ, God has given us life in all its fullness. In giving us Jesus Christ, God has given us a sure Guide for life and a Saviour from death. So come, let’s repent of our waywardness, let’s return to him. Let us join together in this journey of the heart we call Lent, so we may truly rejoice at Easter.

 

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Passion: Desire and Suffering (First Sunday in Lent, Year B, 26 February, 2012)

Passion: Desire and Suffering

Readings
Genesis 9.8-17
Mark 1.9-15

Create in us a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within us.

Have you ever been to a passion play? There is one held every year not far away from here at Lake Moogerah, and of course there is the very famous passion play held at Oberammergau in Germany every ten years.

In a passion play, ordinary people act out the events of Holy Week—Jesus clears the temple, he disputes with the religious authorities, he eats the final Passover meal with his friends, he is betrayed and arrested, tried in a kangaroo court, hoisted upon the cross and buried. The stone is then rolled away and Jesus comes in resurrection glory, victorious over sin and death and hell.

We usually employ the word ‘passion’ these days in a very positive way. If we have a passion, we have a strong desire for something. It may be a person, a motor bike or an ice cream, we can have a passion for it.

But ‘passion’ also has a kind of opposite meaning: it means ‘suffering’. A few years ago, Mel Gibson produced a film called The Passion of the Christ. It was very much about Jesus’ sufferings. Too much for my taste.

So there is intense desire and painful suffering; both are passion.

We can easily have both at the same time. If you love someone, you make yourself vulnerable to them. The one your heart yearns for may also be the one who causes you great suffering. We can see today that Jesus combines both desire and suffering in one.

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First Sunday in Lent (Year A, 13 March 2011)

I was at a family camp (fab time!!) this weekend. The service at Centenary UC was led by Rev Mary Haire. I thank Mary, and thank her for this copy of her sermon:

 

Readings

Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4: 1-11

Away with you Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’

These words of Jesus in the gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 4, Verse 10, sum up Jesus’ decision when faced with temptations and choices after he fasted for 40 days in the bush.

I don’t need to remind you about the number of choices and dilemmas we all have every day—the little things and the big things in our lives.

We have personal ethical dilemmas and choices; as a child, whether to own up to an accident or misdeed; as an adult whether to earn more money for our family or to devote this time to voluntary work for our neighbour. Whether to enter into the carbon tax debate?

At the times of the recent devastating floods in Queensland and the bushfires in Victoria a couple of years ago,  many made choices which put actions to save others above concerns for personal safety and property. No doubt after the terrible earthquakes and tsunamis which have just happened in Japan we shall see similar choices made both by trained rescuers and by ordinary people. Then there are the complicated ethical debates which cross boundaries of legal stability, national relations and social justice. The Law Report on ABC radio recently described the Vulture funds which buy up debts of desperately poor countries for a pittance and seek to have them enforced in countries around the world, creating ethical dilemmas for legal systems and international business relationships.

There are even life and death choices for individuals. I remember as a member of a committee for organ and tissue donation and transplantation needing to debate the issue of whether a prisoner who had been convicted of a very serious crime should allowed to be put on the waiting list for an organ transplant, when there were many others who were waiting.

In the story of the temptation of Jesus it is definitely not the small personal choices within this world which are the main subject.  It is not even the larger choices and ethical dilemmas—but the whole calling, and vocation of Jesus, the type of mission which God has for him. It is a story about the greatest choice which there has ever been in anyone’s life, whether or not to accept the way of the cross, the one which Jesus made on our behalf. Put in its starkest form: it is a life and death choice for all humankind—for all of us.

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A short meditation for Ash Wednesday (Year A, 9 March 2011)

Connect

Readings
Isaiah 58.1-12
Matthew 6.1-21

 

For the longest time, we Protestants and Evangelicals have placed great stress on what happens in our hearts.

What good is it, we say, if a person does the outwardly correct ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ things, if their heart is not right with God?

We’ve seen too much self-serving religion. We’ve listened to the prophets like Isaiah, as we should. The people say to God:

Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?

And God replies:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.

We are here today to connect. We wish to connect faith and life, so that our life as a family of God shows the justice and care of God.

We wish to connect soul and body. We can only love others through our bodies; we can only love them through their bodies. We can only say ‘Let me help’ with our body to another body. We can only say a caring word or smile a loving smile with our bodies. We are called to feed and clothe others whose bodies lack such things. Our soul needs our body to be a soul.

We are here to connect who we are in baptism with who we are in our body. We will soon hear the words ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. This body is not permanent. But in our baptism we were declared a daughter of God, a son of God—and the sign of the cross was made on our foreheads. Today, we will again receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads, but this time in ashes rather than water. ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’—yet always as God’s beloved children.

Lent is a time to connect. To connect with God and with one another, through very basic means—prayer; scripture; worship; service; fasting.

Let’s connect this Lent.

 

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