Turning values inside-out

A sermon for St Margaret’s Bramley, 7 April 2019

Readings: (Isaiah 43:16-21) / Philippians 3:4-14 / John 12:1-8

I want us to hear a couple of short stories this morning, as well as our two Bible readings. Let’s start with one of Aesop’s fables.

The miser and his gold

The miser put a great value on the gold, although in its hole it was of no practical use. Today’s Bible readings are also both, in different ways, about what people value.

St Paul (or Saul as he was originally called) put great value on his Jewish heritage. He was proud of the tribe he belonged to, he boasted of his theological education, his devout practice in temple worship and obeying all the religious rules.  He was even proud of persecuting the new Christian sect who didn’t do these things. He thought God valued him because of all those.

But as soon as Saul encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he saw that those things he had valued were not only of no value, but negative value – “whatever gains I had, I have come to regard as loss” – the language is that of credit and debt. Like the miser’s gold in the hole that had been replaced by a stone, they had become not treasures, but a weight around his neck.  He had not only to ignore, but get rid of, those things that were holding him back in faith.

Instead, Paul (as he was then known) valued more than anything his faith in Jesus Christ. He writes, “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death”.  That verse puzzled me when I first came across it, and it still challenges me now.  To know Christ – yes, that’s what we all want to do as Christians.  To know the power of his resurrection – yes, that sounds wonderful, although it’s not something we experience day to day. But to share his sufferings and become like him in death?  That’s really challenging.

Does it mean that Jesus expects me to be persecuted and tortured to death to prove that my faith is real?  I don’t believe that every Christian is expected to suffer literally in that way, though some do in other places around the world.  Perhaps it makes more sense if we think of it in these terms of reversing values. To value our faith above worldly ideas of wealth and status will often mean losing out in financial terms, just as Jesus and his disciples lived a simple life with no settled home, and that hurts.  It will sometimes mean losing friendships, when people don’t understand us and walk away, just as Jesus was rejected by many, and that hurts.  When these things happen, we need to remind ourselves again what it is we are valuing – the cross and resurrection of Christ.

Value of course, is so often measured by the world in monetary terms, like the miser’s gold. In the Gospel story we see a great contrast between Judas and Mary in their values.  For Judas the value of the perfume was monetary.  He reckoned it at 300 denarii, which was nearly a labourer’s annual wages, let’s say at least £10,000 today. It was Mary’s life savings, in the form of a physical asset, again like the miser’s gold.  But unlike the miser who kept the gold hidden in the ground where is was of no use, Mary was willing to realise its value in a new way. At that moment, when Jesus who had raised her brother Lazarus from death to life, came to visit, money meant nothing. Like Paul, she had come to a point where she understood that her relationship with Jesus meant so much to her that everything she valued, including the jar of valuable ointment, meant nothing. Indeed it had to be sacrificed in order to allow Jesus to take his rightful place in her life.

There’s another way of considering value, besides the value that we give to money, possessions or relationships.  That is the value that other people, and God, put on us, on our own unique life. Here’s another story from a different religious tradition, that of the Sikhs.

Guru Nanak’s disciple and the precious stone.

[For non-Indian readers, 50 lakhs = 5 million Rupees; 2 Crore = 20 million Rupees]

Jesus, of course, said similar things about the value that God puts on us. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Or again, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones (that is, any of his disciples) for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.”

Lent is a time when we are encouraged to think about what we value, and what our value is to other people and God.  Some people like to put aside something that they think is holding them back from God – like Paul laying aside his empty Jewish traditions, or Mary pouring away her costly perfume.

Others, like Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus to listen to him (as another gospel story tells us) prefer to take up or do more of something that they think will help them find God – prayer, devotional reading, or study groups.

When we do find God through Jesus, and realise our value to him as well as his value to us, often the only meaningful response is one of sacrifice.  Mary’s outpouring of the ointment was both a response to Jesus’s teaching that she had received, and a thank offering for bringing her brother back to life. Paul’s response to encountering Jesus in his life was to sacrifice his high status in Jewish circles and join the very group of believers whom he had once persecuted.

Perhaps, then, it is to the extent that we are willing to make sacrifices for Christ’s sake – sacrifices of money, or possessions, or time, or status, that we being to respond to Paul’s challenge “to share Christ’s sufferings”. But we can only be motivated to do this, when we realise that the value God places on us is far more than the value we can ever place on him.  On the cross, Jesus showed that the value he places on each one of us is greater than the value he placed on his own life.  The sacrifice we owe in return is nothing less. In the words of a well known Lent hymn:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

 

(c) Stephen Craven 2019

The Bible in a Year – 25 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

25 December John chapters 19-21

I am sure it cannot be coincidence that the reading for Christmas Day is the last three chapters of John’s gospel, which cover the death and resurrection of Christ.  The people who planned this year-long programme of Bible readings must have arranged it like that, and for a good reason.

Our priest at this morning’s Christmas communion service started his sermon by talking about the Yorkshire tradition of eating cheese with sweet foods – salty blue Stilton with mince pies, creamy Wensleydale with Christmas fruit cake.   He linked this odd, but actually very tasty,  combination of tastes to the fact that within the last week before Christmas, when the church is looking forward to the joy of the Nativity, and the world is celebrating in its own pleasure-seeking way, the church leaders and musicians have been planning the music for services in Lent and Holy Week.

It may seem strange reading about the death and resurrection of Christ, or planning solemn music for the season when we particularly remember those events, just when the focus should be on his birth.  But there are good reasons for doing so.

We cannot understand the birth of Jesus into the world unless we think also of the crucifixion. Nor can we understand the crucifixion without believing in the resurrection.  For that was the whole point of his birth.  The way God rescues us from the consequences of our own sin is to take those sins upon himself and suffer the consequences – separation from God, mental agony, physical torture, and death.  But that was not the end of the story – the resurrection proved that the sinless  one was stronger than sin and death and would live for ever.

Even at the time Jesus was dedicated as a baby, it was prophesied about him that he would be the cause of the “falling and rising of many in Israel”, and of Mary his mother it was said “a sword will pierce your own heart also”.  Throughout the last year or so of his life, Jesus had tried many times to explain to the disciples that his death – and subsequent resurrection – were absolutely part of God’s plan for him, and could not be avoided without wrecking the plan.

There is a line in a Christmas carol that says “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day”.  It sounds good, but it is not good theology.  It would be more accurate – if less poetic – to say “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Day”.  But we can make a concession – as the timeless God came into our world in the form of a time-bound human being, birth had to come before death.  Without Christmas there could be no Easter.  And without Mary’s willing acceptance of God’s will there could have been no Christmas.  Therefore we say with her, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”.

Merry Christmas to all readers.

 

The Bible in a Year – 24 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

24 November. Luke chapters 23-24

And so we come to the end of Luke’s account of the life of Jesus, with the trial, crucifixion and resurrection. He also starts here, with the appearance of Jesus p the Emmaus Road, his account of the beginnings of the Christian church. It ends with Jesus instructing the disciples to “proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations” (24:27), a task which Luke’s second volume (Acts of the Apostles) records.

From all this, the heart of the Christian Gospel, I will take the references to Christ as King, for that is the focus of Catholic and Anglican worship  this Sunday (the 5th Sunday before Christmas) .

First, the Jewish “assembly” takes Jesus before Pontius Pilate and lays charges against him, including that of claiming to be a king. Pilate asks for Jesus to respond to this charge, and Jesus says “you say so”, perhaps meaning, “if you are prepared to believe that I am a king as these people say, then I am”.  But Pilate does not consider any of the charges against Jesus to merit a death sentence, only a flogging.

Then, on the cross, the Roman soldiers also mock him “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (23:27). Maybe they were the same people who had mocked him in the same way with a purple robe at his trial.  And finally, there was an inscription over him, attributed in John’s gospel to Pilate, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’”

It seems that this was the most controversial title for Jesus in his day.  The Jewish people had not had a king of their own since before the Exile over 500 years earlier, and the Roman Emperor represented by the governor was the head of state in his day.  It does not seem from the Gospel stories that Jesus went about calling himself King: it was a title possibly given to him by his followers out of admiration, but mainly as a controversial political claim by his enemies in order to try and provoke Pilate or Herod to try him for treason.  The fact that neither of them did so shows that they did not consider him a political threat.

In Luke’s account of the Emmaus road and the subsequent appearance to all the apostles, Jesus still does not use this title about himself, preferring “Messiah” (although as that means ‘the anointed one’ it carries much the same meaning). Christians do call Jesus the King, though – but not “King of the Jews” for we believe his reign is over not just the Jewish people or the state of Israel, but all of creation.  Jesus’s kingship really only started with the Resurrection.    When we celebrate Christ the King and then move into Advent, we remember not only the fact that he reigns invisibly on earth now, but also the centuries of waiting that preceded his coming, and the faith that he will come again in visible form to take up his rightful place among us.

The Bible in a Year – 12 November

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12 November. Mark chapters 15-16

Today is Remembrance Sunday.  Along with hundreds of people of all faiths and none from our local community, I attended the act of remembrance at our local war memorial in Bramley Park.  We had readings from the book of Micah (common scripture to Jews and Christians) and prayers from Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh faith leaders as well as some words from local councillors and representatives of the armed services.

The common theme of such acts of remembrance is praise for those who have died in the service of their country.  If pressed, I am sure the families of those victims would admit that their son, brother or uncle was not a perfect person, for none of us is perfect.  But this is not the time to point out faults.  If someone has taken it upon himself (or increasingly, herself) to fight in defence of their people or for the sake of human rights, then it is commonly acknowledged that such sacrifice deserves more than mere respect. It is accepted that laying down one’s life for others is of such moral value that it wipes out any faults that the person might have had, and leaves them fit to receive the accolade of “hero” – maybe even a posthumous medal.

Jesus did not give up his life in military service. In fact, while accepting the necessity of armed forces (he told soldiers who wished to follow him, not to desert their posts but to do their job faithfully and impartially), he himself was a man of peace, critical of those among his disciples who wished to take up arms.  Yet, we recognise that he did voluntarily lay down his life.  He could have just been a provincial rabbi, but instead he followed the insistent calling of the Holy Spirit to a unique ministry that he knew from early on would lead to his being martyred.

In giving himself up in this way, the perfect man for the sake of the imperfect, Jesus won a title that is far greater than that of a war hero, or even an ordinary person killed for their outspoken words of truth such as Martin Luther King or Oscar Romero.  Even the Roman centurion who was in charge of the execution called him “a son of God” (15:39).  To the writers of the Gospels, including Mark (who may have been one of Jesus’ disciples), the resurrection and the place at the right hand of God (16:19) were the fitting reward for this sacrifice.

Once a year we remember the war dead of the world.  But every week (or in some communities, every day) Christians gather to remember the death of Jesus as we share the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper.  As we approach the communion table, we proclaim: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!”  That is true remembrance.

The Bible in a Year – 4 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

4 November. Matthew chapters 27-28

These last two chapters of the Gospel cover Matthew’s version of the most important events of the whole Bible – the death and resurrection of Jesus.  What can I add to the volumes that have been written about those world-changing three days?

Let’s consider the attitudes towards Jesus of the people who encountered him. Firstly those who responded negatively. Firstly, the “chief priests and elders” (27:20) who whipped up the emotions of the crowd to have Jesus crucified, even though Pilate was minded to release him.  Those same priests and elders panicked, if Matthew’s account is to be believed, on Easter day when the report of the resurrection reached them: like most politicians whose judgements have been proved wrong, rather than admitting  their mistake they turned to bribery and false reporting in order to suppress the truth (28:12-14).

Then there were the soldiers who mocked him, made him (and Simon) carry the cross, gambled for his clothing as he hung dying. And the two bandits hung alongside him who, along with the soldiers and passers-by, taunted him to perform one last miracle by coning down from the cross – just as he had been tempted by the Devil in the desert to perform miracles for the sake of his own health and popularity. And of course the crowd, who would go along with whatever the religious leaders said.

Two key players changed their mind in all the confusion of the proceedings of Holy Week: Pilate who seemed to believe Jesus was innocent, but was not prepared to risk his own reputation in Rome by letting a riot begin because of it; and Judas, who repented of his betrayal. But for him it was too late.

But among other observers were individuals who bucked the trend, who had the courage to ignore popular opinion and believe that Jesus was worth respect, who had at least the common humanity which cannot ignore another person in distress.  These few made all the difference.

There was Pilate’s wife, who because of a presumably God-given  dream (what was it, we wonder?) was convinced of Jesus’ innocence (27:19) – but her word was not enough to turn Pontius from his course. There were the unnamed bystanders who twice offered him wine (presumably as a feeble attempt at anaesthetising his pain – which he refused). There were his own mother, the mothers of some of his disciples and “many other women” who endured the mental torment of watching him and the two thieves die in agony, because they believed in Jesus to the end. Hats off to Joseph of Arimathea: he had the courage to believe in Jesus’ right to a respectful burial, to ask for his bloodied body, and to risk ritual uncleanness by handling it.  The two Marys (Magdalen, and the mother of James and Joseph) also were willing to start embalming the body, and to come back at first light after the Sabbath to continue despite knowing the sealed tombstone would be almost impossible to move.  If they had not done so, would they have witnessed the most incredible sight ever?

Maybe these people had been in the crowd when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and remembered that showing mercy to someone in great difficulty (irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, beliefs or what got them into difficulty) is a sign of love for God as well a neighbour.  Maybe they were also there when he said “blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”.  For it is easy – I will admit to it myself – to walk past when someone is in trouble, especially if they are not like us.  It is not difficult to agree with the principle that we are all brothers and sisters in this life and we need to help each other.  But it is far more difficult to put it into practice.  Thank God for those who do, and especially for those who helped Jesus and showed him respect in both life and death.

The Bible in a Year – 5 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

If you are a regular visitor and wondering why the posts stop at 4 July it is just because I have been away for a few days – making notes but without the opportunity to post them online.  So we will catch up shortly.

5 July. Psalms 46-50

Psalms 42-49 are all headed “of the sons of Korah”. Perhaps they were a group of musicians who played for temple worship.

At present we need little reminder that “the nations are in uproar” (46:5), with violent demonstrations against world leaders in Hamburg this week, continuing warfare in the Middle East, central Africa and other places, and increasing numbers of migrants seeking asylum in more settled countries. But the Biblical response is to hold on in faith, even if the “whole world melts” (which with nuclear tensions building up again between America and North Korea does not seem much of an exaggerated fear). God, his support for the vulnerable, and his strength for the weak, will never cease.

 

Psalm 47 stands out from most of the others with its positive affirmation of monotheism – there is one God who rules over all the kingdoms of the earth.  The triumphal shout that “God has gone up!” is seen by Christians as a prophecy of the ascension of Jesus, forty days after his resurrection. Whether we think of that as a literal or metaphorical description of what happened, all Christians can agree that Jesus is now the “king of all nations” in a way that is much more real than when the Jews had to have faith in an unseen God.

 

Psalm 49 turns our thoughts to the unavoidable subject of our own mortality, with a reminder that, as we say in English, “you can’t take your money with you when you go [to heaven]”.  Riches (“mammon”) have no real existence, nor does the human body after death.   All that remain are the soul, and God’s memory of our thoughts, words and deeds.  Some of the verses, “No-one can redeem the life of another or give God a ransom for him – the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough – that he should live for ever and not see decay” (49:7-9), are a worldview that is in fact overturned by the death of Jesus. We believe that in fact he did, by his death, ransom all people to God at great cost, so that they may have the opportunity of eternal life – free from guilt in this life, and with the promise of resurrection to a new life with a new kind of body beyond death.

 

The Bible in a Year – 30 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

30 June. Psalms 21-25

Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd) is probably the best known of all the psalms, for many people have found comfort in its image of God’s guiding presence in times of peace and times of trouble alike.  But I will focus today on the ones either side – Pss. 22 and 24.

 

Today is known as “Petertide” (St Peter’s day) and traditionally the day for ordaining new deacons and priests in the [Catholic or Anglican] Church.  These psalms speak to those called to this ministry.

 

In the first half of Ps. 22 the writer tells of how he feels persecuted by the people around him, describing them as dogs, lions and bulls.  But in verse 21 the mood suddenly changes and he is saved by God from them.  Then he declares “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you … From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him” (22:22,25).  Those who feel called to leadership in the church often have a story to tell of how they themselves felt God calling them out of some difficult situation, and want to offer themselves to the Lord to serve him in gratitude.  They also want the opportunity to share their story with others and inspire them to find the saving grace of God.  As the Psalmist writes, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.” (22:30,31)

 

Psalm 24 is one of the “songs of ascent” believed to have been sung in procession up the hill of Jerusalem to the Temple.  The song calls for the great doors of the Temple to be swung open – not so that people can enter, but that God himself can come in.  Part of the priest’s role in leading worship is to prepare his or her congregation – who make the Church, rather than the building itself – to receive God into their lives. But in order to fulfil this high calling, the priest has to be a person of integrity: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully” (24:3,4).  Which is why ordinands usually go on a few days silent retreat before the ceremony so that they can examine their consciences and prepare themselves to meet with the Lord who calls them.

 

Both these Psalms, as well as Psalm 23, are also associated with the last days in the life of Jesus, by Christians who believe him to be “the Lord coming to his Temple”. John Stainer in his oratorio “The crucifixion” set those verses of Psalm 24 as the chorus “Fling wide the gates, the Saviour waits”; and the first half of 22 with its reference to abandonment, mocking, physical suffering and people casting lots for clothing, is seen as being fulfilled by his crucifixion.

The Bible in a Year – 6 March

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

 

6 March. Deuteronomy chapters 21-23

What an odd collection of laws!  Some of those given here are purely practical, like not weaving wool with linen (22:11) – the warp and weft would shrink differently – or not yoking an ox with a donkey (a comical idea – the ox would carry on ploughing while the donkey sat down on the spot, as they do). Others are just good hygiene practice (digging latrines outside the camp, 23:12). But then we get ‘laws’ concerning marriage and sexual relations that seem shocking to us, such as it being OK to rape an unbetrothed virgin and then marry her in return for paying her father a dowry (22:28) – where is her opinion in that? Where are the human rights?  And don’t ask me to read Deuteronomy 23:1 aloud in church!

 

 

So I won’t attempt to comment on those passages. Instead I will look at a law that has Lenten resonances for Christians: “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” (21:22-23). This reminds us that Jesus was executed as a criminal, the cross being treated under Jewish law in the same way as a living tree, and therefore his disciples, with the help of Joseph of Arimathea who provided the grave space, laid him to rest the same day, in haste and without time to prepare the body for burial.  The next day after Jesus’ death was a Sabbath anyway, when all ‘work’ was prohibited.  But if they had waited until the next working day to give him a ‘proper’ burial, would they have returned to the tomb and found it empty? Sometimes, following the rules, even if they seem restrictive, can actually lead to blessings.  Perhaps that’s one reason why many people set themselves a particular discipline in Lent, whether in abstinence or additional good works or times of prayer.