Forgive us when…

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is one by Martin Leckebusch from the selection for Lent.  The full words can be found on the Jubilate Hymns website.  Sing Praise offers two choices of tune, neither familiar to me, and John Hartley has composed one for the occasion in a minor key, but in fact as it is in the frequently used “long metre” (eight syllables per line) there are many suitable tunes and the Jubilate website suggests the well-known “Tallis’s Canon”.

The first line is “Forgive us when our deeds ignore your righteous rule”. In fact all the verses begin “Forgive us…”, which is a good clue to the theme, which is that of penitence (saying sorry to God for the things we’ve done wrong and asking his help not to repeat our mistakes). 

Traditionally the sort of sins repented of in Lent were greed, pride, lust and envy – sins of thought more than of deed, for the most part.  Not that those are suddenly acceptable these days, and indeed in verse two we confess “dreams of pleasure, wealth and pride” and in verse three “our endless greed for what was never truly ours” (more than a nod to the traditional vices there).   

But the focus of what we think of as sin has shifted in recent decades.  The things that Martin asks us to repent of include what we might call “woke sins”, thoughts and actions that harm the world and its people and our relationship with nature. More specifically, verse one refers to “decisions that harm the poor”, reflecting the  theology of “liberation” or “bias to the poor” that has become popular since the 1960s.  Verse three expands the concept of greed beyond personal acquisition to encompass the way “we harness this world’s brutal powers” (meaning perhaps its fossil fuel and nuclear energy, although it may also suggest structural and corporate greed riding roughshod over the poor).   

Verse four gives an interesting take on what ‘sin’ might mean in its widest sense: “we change the rules by which the game is played”. The Biblical understanding is that God’s commandments – his rules for living – are for everyone’s benefit.  But by changing those rules to benefit ourselves more than others, by making greed a strength and living sustainably with a view to the needs of others a weakness, we undermine the way the world was supposed to work.

The last two lines combine a traditional observance of Lent with this more contemporary understanding as we ask God to “help us walk your holy way, to make your world a better place”.  Personal holiness and concern for the world around us are not two opposing or different approaches to religion, they are more like the intertwining strands of DNA or the interplay of electricity and magnetism: only together can they bring life and power into being.

Awake, awake, fling off the night

Today’s hymn, keeping up the theme of light in this Epiphany season, is “Awake, awake, fling off the night”. The light of Christ is contrasted with the darkness of sin.  It is a biblical message: “light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Sin and evil are often associated with darkness, because when we know that what we are doing is wrong – and most of the time we do – we naturally want to hide from it.  So most crime is committed at night, or down dark alleyways, or in other places where the criminal will not be disturbed. 

The constant theme of Scripture is that God is everywhere and knows everything we do, indeed every secret thought.  There are no dark places, no hidden corners, where we can hide from God to do our evil deeds unnoticed. As the psalmist puts it. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Ps. 139:7). 

That sounds scary – God the policeman who patrols wherever we choose to walk, as well as being the judge who passes sentence. The good news is that in Jesus, God also becomes the one who pardons.   But as in human relationships and penal systems, there can only be pardon where there is contrition. The first step is to admit our sin to God and ask forgiveness.  Then the pardon can come, and light replace the darkness.  So the last verse of the hymn encourages the forgiven sinner to sing for joy and praise God.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 16 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

16 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 27-30

I have picked two short passages from among these chapters, which belong together in the approach to life that they commend: the passages which in the Jerusalem Bible are headed “resentment” (27:30-28:9) and “happiness” (30:21-25).

The first of these classes resentment, along with anger, as a sin, and exhorts the reader to “forgive your neighbour the hurt he does you, and when you pray, your sins will be forgiven” (28:2).  That reads so much like the Lord’s Prayer, that I expect Jesus knew this passage and perhaps was quoting it when he replied to the disciples who asked him how they should pray.  The next verse explains how this works – “if a man nurses anger against another, can he then demand compassion from the Lord?”  For an attitude of unforgiveness, even if we think “justice” deserves that some hurt done to us be avenged, cuts us off not only from our own soul but from God.  If you are still in any doubt, verse 6 brings us up short – “remember the last things, and stop hating”.  In other words, we all die, and if we end this life in an attitude of hatred towards other people, how can we expect God to show love towards us in the life to come?

The second passage warns of the dangers of “sorrow and brooding” (30:21).   Why? “Jealousy and anger shorten your days, and worry brings premature old age”.  This ancient wisdom is only now being rediscovered by those who in our own time warn of the dangers of stress, which does indeed increase the risk not only of a heart attack or stroke, but of other diseases that shorten life expectancy.  The contrast is with “gladness of heart and joy” which “give length of days”.  There is also a reference to the effect of stress that reduces appetite: “a genial heart makes a good trencherman, one who benefits from his food” (30:25).

So taken together we have several good reasons to stop being resentful, angry or sorrowful about the things that other people do to us, and do our best to remain cheerful and to forgive them when we can.  It’s not easy, but then living well never is. It takes an effort.   But putting your efforts into reconciliation, forgiveness and relaxation is better than putting the same amount of effort into trying to get even with someone.

 

The Bible in a Year – 13 December

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

13 December. Hebrews chapters 7-10

Chapters 5 to 10 are a lengthy explanation (originally for the benefit of Jewish readers) of how Jesus has superseded all the requirements of the Jewish law, at least those that relate to sacrifices, food laws and anything else to do with Temple ritual.   Judaism has of course moved on itself since those days and no longer has a Temple or sacrifices, so the distinction is not as great as it was.  But the point is still worth making, that Jesus started a completely new way of relating to God.

There are several points to the writer’s argument, and some of them (such as Jesus being equivalent to the obscure priest-king Melchizedek from the time of Abraham) are rather too obscure to explore here.  More to the point is the fact that the old system of sacrifice required an endless succession of priests who died like everyone else, making regular sacrifices in a specific place (the Tabernacle or Temple), using animal blood, to forgive sins that had been committed, but could not achieve atonement (putting right) for sins that people had not yet committed. So there was no end to that system and it had no effectiveness outside the Jewish community who participated in the rituals.

Until Jesus, that is. He came as the one who outlived death, so requires no successor.  He shed his own innocent blood instead of that of young animals, so no animal sacrifices are needed. He ascended into heaven and is therefore connected with all places at all times, so his sacrifice is also effective at all times and places. And he came for the benefit of all humanity, whether or not of Jewish heritage.

So why does the Church re-enact Jesus’ last meal (and thus symbolically his sacrifice) every day in many places, and at least every month in most congregations?  Isn’t it enough to take Communion once, as we are baptised only once?  Although Jesus’ death is effective at forgiving the sins of those who confess them in faith, we fallible people constantly need to be reminded of that.

We also need to be reminded regularly that “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (9:28), which is why we have the annual season of Advent in which we are now living.  And “in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay; but my righteous one will live by faith.” (10:37).

 

The Bible in a Year – 20 November

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20 November. Luke chapters 14-16

The first ten verses of chapter 15 comprise the two short parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  They go together, two ways of making the same point, which is: “there is joy in heaven over one person who repents”.  Why does Jesus make this point about joy?  Because the “scribes and Pharisees” – those full-time theologians who became the bane of his life – were grumbling again.  “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”.

What was the motivation of the Pharisees for their grumbling? I think it was jealousy, for they saw people coming to Jesus, finding forgiveness, and responding joyfully.  They themselves, caught up as they were in their own detailed commentaries and interpretations of Jewish law, had no time for joy.  Joy, in the sense that Christians use the term, is not physical pleasure but the deep contentment and happiness of a fulfilled life, something that God always intended for us.  It’s easy to lose that sense of joy in the busyness and troubles of this life.  Sin, self-centredness and materialism (all of which characterised the Pharisees) work against a joy-filled life. But Jesus saw it as part of his mission to restore it.  In John’s Gospel he says, “I speak these things so they may have my joy made complete in themselves” [John 17:13].

There’s nothing like a sense of guilt for making people joyless, and nothing like having that guilt removed for restoring joy. That is why repentance is more than merely praying for forgiveness.  Saint Paul experienced this, as he writes to Timothy.  He may not be using the word “joy”, but “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:14) surely describes such joy.  This “joy in the Lord” comes when someone experiences, as Paul did, the assurance of forgiveness and being made at one with God.

Looking again at the second of Jesus’ short parables, the lost coin, he is describing the joy, the relief, of finding something that we knew all along was missing.  The coin was not additional income, but something that already belonged to the woman.  In the same way, repenting and finding peace with God through Christ is restoring a relationship that we all should have had in the first place.

For that reason, it’s more than just a matter for the individual.  Christianity is never a closed shop, our mission is always to help people see what they are missing and find it.  The shepherd, or the housewife, in the parables represents not only Jesus, but each one of us. Jesus says there is “joy in heaven”, or “joy in the presence of the angels of God”, over one sinner who repents.  It is a matter of rejoicing for the whole Christian community when another person understands what Christ has done for him or her, and turns to him.

How might we express joy when we see someone coming to faith?  The charity “Christians Against Poverty” work with churches throughout the country to offer debt counselling.  Each local church is encouraged to celebrate when someone is set free from debt, after the counsellor has negotiated cancellation of some of their debts and a repayment plan for the rest that they can afford.  But more than that, along with debt counselling, CAP advisers take any opportunity they can to share their faith and tell people of Jesus who can set them free from sin as well as financial debt.  In CAP head office in Bradford there is a bell, and that bell is rung whenever it is reported by a local church that one of their clients has decided to become a Christian.

Have you found a lost sheep recently?  Helped another person along the way back to God?  Or experienced joy when he found you? Then meet up with with other Christians and rejoice together.

Extracts from a sermon for Holy Trinity, North Greenwich, 15 September 2013

The Bible in a Year – 9 March

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

9 March. Deuteronomy chapters 30-31

As Moses completes his summary of the law, he once again presents it as a choice for the people: to obey means blessing, prosperity and life; to disobey (especially in ‘turning to other gods’) means curses, poverty and death.  He does his best to present it, to use a contemporary term, as a “no brainer”, or to put it another way, “what’s not to like about serving God?”  To choose to believe in God and take the commandments seriously is to follow a path that will result in a happier life not only for oneself but for the whole community, because the more people who do, the less hatred, crime and injustice there will be.

 

But it is a choice.  And Moses is all too aware, as is God himself, that in practice the people will, most of the time, choose to ignore God, and follow their own desires.  The scene is set for the next thousand years in which the ‘chosen people’ will rebel and return, again and again.  When Moses prophesies (30:4-5) of exile and return, he may have been given a vision of the exile to Babylon several hundred years in the future, or maybe even the greater diaspora in which the Jewish people would have no home in the promised land for nearly 1900 years.

 

How would he have felt about that?  To be told at the end of forty years of hard work leading the people to this point when they could claim a permanent inheritance, that soon after his death they would forget all he had taught them and go their own way. But always God gives a longer view, a hope that beyond rebellion is the call to return, beyond sin is the promise of forgiveness, beyond betrayal there is the possibility of restoration.  That applies as much to individuals as to the whole nation.  If I turn way from God, I know he will still accept me back, whether it’s the next day or much later in life.  Praise God for his constant love!