Thoughts for the fourth Sunday in Lent

The first reading, from the second book of Chronicles, paints the People of God as a recalcitrant child who never, ever learns. Time and again, the people stray from the true way (from the Law that we covered last week). Time and again, the Lord sends prophets to call the people back to his love.

Enough now. God is … ah … displeased.

Nebuchadnezzar descended on them like the wrath of God, smashed up the city, smashed down the Temple and carted anyone who survived the onslaught back home with him to Babylon. Today’s psalm, famously recalled by Boney M, is the lament of God’s people in exile.

The Chronicler doesn’t stop there, however. In Advent, we heard Isaiah’s cry of consolation. Here, we see the same event from a separate perspective. God has personally commanded the king of Persia to rebuild the Temple, and to let his people go home, so that they might, once again, worship God on his own soil.

Paul takes up the theme when he reminds us so forcefully that we have done nothing at all to earn the sacrifice of Christ. It was not because of any merit on the part of humankind that God sent his Son to redeem us. It was because we are God’s work of art. Let’s remember that the next time we are lacking in self-esteem.

In today’s reading from John’s Gospel, we meet Nicodemus . Here is a man, a leader of the Jews, desiring to know better the love of God. He has already been told that he must be born again in water and the Spirit (as we all are in baptism) in order to see the Kingdom of God, and now Jesus is telling him what will come to pass to accomplish the great work of salvation.

Jesus refers to the Exodus, where the People of God, having refused to enter the Promised Land, are stuck in the desert, beset by all kinds of maladies, including venomous snakes. Moses erects a snake on a staff and raises it up. Anyone who is bitten by a snake and looks up at this golden snake will be saved from death. Jesus explicitly likens himself to this icon, saying that he himself will be lifted up and, through this sacrifice, salvation will come into the world.

Calvinism gets a bit stuck with this passage. Jesus tells us that God sent him into the world not to condemn it, but so that the world might be saved, and that anyone who believes in Jesus’ mission of salvation is saved already.

As we head towards Holy Week, let us hold this image of Jesus lifted up for our salvation at the forefront of our minds so we are truly ready to join in the great liturgies of Easter.

Thoughts for the third Sunday of Lent

Late again. Sorry.

We open with the Law, this week. For the Jewish people in the desert, the Law gained a capital L. Forty days after the Passover night when they got out from under the grip of Pharoah, they crossed the Red Sea. Ten days after that, they found themselves at Mt Sinai, receiving the Law. Handwritten by God on stone tablets. Pentecost, as it came to be known, remained a Jewish festival from this time.

The psalmist reminds us that God’s Law is perfect, and following it leads to life, to peace and to enrichment. Note Jesus’ reaction in the Gospel when he sees people taking God’s Law and re-interpreting in the way that best suits themselves.

St Paul reminds us that Christianity is crazy. Our greatest hero, the person whom we venerate above all others, the Son of God himself, was tried and executed as a criminal. Indeed, to human eyes, this looks ridiculous. “To Jews, an obstacle they can’t get over; to the pagans, madness.

The Gospel this week shows Jesus flipping tables. It is important that we remember this face of Jesus. Too often, we are presented with a rather prissy, soppy image of a Jesus who wouldn’t stand in the way of a feather. Today, we are reminded that he has a backbone and isn’t afraid of causing something of a stir within quiet, well-behaved social norms.

In the Temple, at the time, people would go to make offerings for sin. They’d talk to the priest and the priest would tell them what sacrifice was required. The sellers in the Temple forecourt were capitalising on this and making it nice and convenient for the penitents. As Fr Denis McBride puts it, you’d raise an eyebrow if you saw your Uncle Derek there leading a giraffe…

Jesus has an altogether different idea of what the worship of his Father looks like, and he shows us what we must sometimes do if we are to join him in building his kingdom.

Jesus depicted cleansing the temple

Thoughts for the Second Sunday of Lent

Sorry this one is so late…

What kind of God do we see in the first reading? He drives Abraham off to a remote mountaintop and asks him to murder his own son. This is a tricky reading indeed. How can a God who is Love demand the literal blood sacrifice of a person’s only child? Possibly the God we see in the second reading, on who did not spare his own son but stood by and watched as the life poured out of him.

Abraham goes with God’s command, however. God has already promised him descendants and Isaac is his only chance to achieve this. Undeterred, Abraham raises the knife and is but a moment away from snuffing out his own bloodline when God calls him once more. God is satisfied that Abraham has cast-iron faith in him and trusts him completely. Because of this display of faith, God re-seals his covenant to Abraham and promises him descendants as numerous as the stars.

St Paul takes up this theme. God gave us his son. His only son, whom he loves. If God did not withhold such a precious gift, we can be assured of God’s abundant generosity in all other things.

Significantly, Paul reminds us to be kind to ourselves. If God acquits us (and he does), who on this Earth may condemn us. This reading challenges us to see God as the final arbiter of our souls and not to spend time worrying about what others are saying about us. It also challenges us to see God as the final arbiter of others’ souls too, and we’d best keep our harsh judgements to ourselves.

The Gospel reading gives us a glimpse of glory on Earth. The contrast with the scene we witnessed at the Baptism of the Lord in the weeks following Christmas is that there are witnesses present this time. If you remember, the account at Jesus’ baptism doesn’t say that the people present at the baptism saw anything. In Mark’s account, it mentions that Jesus saw the heavens opening. This time around, Peter, James and John see it too, and they are terrified.

Peter leaps to the rescue, as he often does. He puts his foot firmly in his mouth and says the first thing that comes to mind. I like this about Peter: he is unafraid to look stupid in front of his friends. He is impulsive and a bit reckless, but his passionate love for Jesus shines through all his actions. As it is, he is saved by God’s intervention, as the cloud covers the sun and leaves only Jesus standing on the mountain with them.

The challenge facing the apostles is the same challenge that we face every day. How can we come down from that mountain and return to normal? How do we take that encounter with God into our mundane lives without always wishing that we could go straight back up the mountain again and stay there forever. That was not Jesus’ plan for his disciples and neither is it his plan for us. At our own baptisms, Jesus opened the heavens and poured his spirit down upon us: we must allow that spirit to transfigure us each day as we go about our daily lives.

Children’s tour of OLEM, 20th Feb 2015

We were excited to be asked to have a tour of OLEM during half term and lots of children (and quite a few parents) took up the offer. Father Henry warmly welcomed us into the church, only to rapidly drag us back out again … but only to explain the gargoyles on the Church roof as demonstrating the ‘bad’ of the outside world, compared to the ‘heavenly’ inside of the church, filled with angels. The tour progressed with seeing important parts of the church like the baptismal font, surrounded by stained glass windows of the sacraments. The children imaginations were captured by the gruesome stories of how many saints died – and which way to be killed was considered preferable (not to be hung, drawn and quartered, funnily enough!). The only disappointment of the day was not to find out just how many angels there are in OLEM … so you will have to count for yourself!

We then moved into the church hall where Mel and Loretta had set up lots of craft activities, including the clear favourite of soap carving. There were some beautiful pictures and creations by the end. Energy levels were boosted with hot chocolate – with squirty cream and marshmallows of course, followed by more pizzas than you can count.

Our thanks particularly to Father Henry, Mel and Loretta for such a happy, interesting and fun visit, and also to everyone who chipped in to help. The church hall was cleaner when we left than when we arrived … but that may have had something to do with all those soap shavings!