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 Like the miser’s gold in the hole that had been replaced by a stone, they had become not treasures, but a weight around his neck.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 Apocrypha in Lent – 30 March (Good Friday)

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

30 March 2018. Daniel chapter 14

Like the story of Susannah on which I wrote earlier this week, this chapter, known as “Bel and the dragon”, is unrelated to the rest of the book of Daniel and is only included because Daniel features in the three short stories that it comprises, all of which share the theme of the defeat of idolatry.  The chapter is omitted in Protestant Bibles as “apocryphal”.

In the first of the short stories, King Cyrus – mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and undoubtedly a historical person – is portrayed as worshiping the idol called Bel or Marduk which appears to eat a large amount of food (including sacrificed sheep). Daniel is no under illusion – he knows that the idol is only a bronze -covered clay statue, and tells the king that their must be trickery.  Cyrus is at least willing to investigate the truth, but the priests of Bel are confident their secret trap door (by which they go in to eat the idol’s food at night) will not be discovered. Daniel uses a simple built of forensic investigation by scattering ashes on the floor to expose the footprints of the people who come in at night, and thus persuades the king to stop worshiping the idol.

In the second story, the king is now worshiping a living creature – a “dragon” (we cannot know what sort of animal this really was). He believes it to be immortal, but Daniel very simply chokes it to death with balls of hair, grease and pitch.  In this way he persuades the king to drop the practice of idolatry.  But that is not the end of the story – for the second time (if the stories in the book are in chronological order) Daniel is fed to the lions, yet survives by God’s miraculous intervention.

Is there any relevance to this story for Christians?  Yes, very much so! Today is Good Friday, when Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate.  Pilate found himself in the same position as Cyrus did – faced with a believer in God who had been upsetting the religious systems of their day, yet willing to be persuaded that the believer in question was not only harmless to society, but maybe even right in representing a different form of religion.

Yet in both cases, the priests of the established religion – the servants of Bel, or the priests of the Jerusalem temple who professed to worship the true God, the God of Abraham (and for that matter Daniel) – were so afraid of losing their influence and their income that they threatened to riot. Just as the priests of Bel “pressed [Cyrus] so hard that the king found himself forced to hand Daniel over to them to throw Daniel into the lion pit” (14:30-31), so Pilate was pressed so hard by the Jews to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus, that he did the same.

What can we learn from these stories – true or not? It seems impossible to modern people that an intelligent person such a Cyrus could believe in a statue actually being a god, but then it seems impossible for many people that an intelligent person can believe in an unseen god.  The deity of Bel and the Dragon could be disproven; the existence of God can neither be disproven, nor proved by scientific experiment.  Daniel, if these stories are true (and the Bible has many examples of people being miraculously preserved from death) could point to the evidence in his life of a saving power, and so can many people today.  Belief in God requires faith, but a faith for which there is evidence.

It is not surprising that when Jesus hung on the cross, he was taunted to save himself and come down from the cross.  He had healed people of all kinds of illness and disability, even raised people from the dead. But it appeared he could not save himself. Where was the God who rescued Daniel from the lions, Joseph from the pit in which his brothers had thrown him, or the three young men of chapter 3 from the furnace, when his own son was dying?  The miracle of Good Friday is in fact in the fact that Jesus was not saved from physical death. For he had to undergo it in order to be raised to life, without which his saving work for all of humanity would not be complete.  Daniel’s life was saved as a reward for defeating the power of idolatry and destroying the terrifying dragon, but Jesus on the cross faced down the greater enemy, the unseen power of the Devil.  He paid the price for that with his life, but was rewarded with the everlasting life that he also offers to us.

Happy Easter!

Here ends the book of Daniel, and with it my survey of the whole Bible (including the apocryphal bits) over the last 15 months.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 22 March

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

22 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 50-51

The book ends with two very different chapters.  The first describes in detail some of the rituals of the Temple, over two thousand years ago, but so slow is change in religious circles that the High Priest of those days, if transported to a Catholic or traditional Anglican church now, would not feel completely out of place.  A priest in vestments that have changed little since Roman times, standing before (or behind) an altar, raising his hands in prayer, holding a cup of wine as an offering, the smell of incense, the sound of the organ perhaps resembling the trumpets of his day, a choir chanting psalms, and at the end a blessing over the assembled people.  And all this in a building designed to symbolise segregation – the narthex for ordinary activities such as eating and drinking, the nave for the laity to worship, a chancel for the choir, the sanctuary with its altar only for the priest.

There are differences, of course, and the Mass even in a very traditional setting is not intended to resemble an animal sacrifice.  Women priests (in an Anglican setting) might be the biggest surprise to our time traveller. The congregation is more likely to be standing or seated than prostrate in prayer – an attitude now found more in Islam than Christianity, but a powerful symbol of humility before God.  But overall, the principles of communal worship  have not changed that much.

The whole book of Ecclesiasticus has been, supposedly, about Wisdom, and the second half of the last chapter (51:13-30) summaries the search for her.  This female personification of God’s inspiration has taken the writer in many directions – good and bad relationships, sex and marriage, and the value of friendship; asceticism, indulgence and a healthy attitude towards money;  life, death and the afterlife; good and evil; truth, lies, gossiping and careful speech; physical and mental health; worship of God and admiration for his creation; and the guidance of God for his people throughout history.  A whole library of practical life skills, in fact.  It deserves to be more widely read.

The Bible in a Year – 14 December

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

14 December. Hebrews chapters 11-13

These last chapters of Hebrews turn from a consideration of Jesus and what he has achieved, to a list of the great figures of the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) and what they achieved through faith.  Much of what is written here is not found directly in the scriptures, and is probably based on rabbinical teaching, but let’s take it as it stands.

The main thrust of the author’s argument is that having faith is not about immediate gain.  The “prosperity gospel” (“if you believe in God and pray hard enough he will make you rich”) is totally alien to this Christian doctrine.  Rather, the riches that the great heroes of the past sought were spiritual ones – the reward of finding God’s blessing in this life, or of preparing others for a life of faith.

The examples given include Abraham, who was promised a vast number of descendants through his son Isaac although he was also called by God to sacrifice Isaac, before the mission was abandoned at he last minute; also Moses, who led an entire nation to safety before his life ended within sight of the promised land; and many unnamed saints who endured physical torment for the sake of the eternal life that was their hope.

The point being made is that we should look not to be rewarded ourselves in our own lifetime, but to “store up treasures in heaven” as Jesus put it, by selflessly working for the benefit of others. This is so counter-cultural that it needs to be repeated often.  To quote Jesus again, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single grain”.  In other words, you have to put yourself out for the sake of others, before God can use you to grow his kingdom.

This Christmas, when we respond to charity appeals at the same time as feeding and giving presents to our families, let us remember that we celebrate the one who laid down his life that we might have fulness of life.

 

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 – 8 December

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

8 December. Acts chapters 26-28

These final chapters of the book of Acts seem to modern readers to have a strange emphasis.  There are nearly two whole chapters (27:1 – 28:16) covering Paul’s last journey from Jerusalem to Rome as a prisoner awaiting trial; and yet only the last  two verses of the book cover his two years in the Eternal City: “He lived there for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (28:30-31).  What it does not mention at all is Paul’s death, though it is usually assumed that at the end of the two years his appeal was heard and refused, and he was executed.

Going back to before his last journey, the two rulers who had interrogated him in Caesarea, Agrippa and Festus, had agreed that “this man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor” (26:32). So should Paul have not made his appeal?  He could, it seems, have saved his life and gone back to preaching in the eastern Mediterannean area.

But on the other hand, if he had not let himself be taken to Rome, with all the dangers that the journey involved, he would never have had the chance to preach to the Jews in Rome, and thereby establish the Church in Rome.  A church which over the next few centuries so influenced the society in which it was situated that the Emperor was eventually converted, and which became the centre of the Christian faith in Western Europe.  The Bishop of Rome, under his alternative title of Pope, is still the most influential Christian leader in the world.  And all because Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship to seek the Emperor’s final decision on his case, even although that decision seems to have gone against him.

Jesus once said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Paul understood this: his own life was sacrificed, but in a way that led to billions of people becoming followers of the Jesus who had appeared to him on that road to Damascus.  From that moment on, his life had been devoted to Jesus, whether in good times or (more often) in difficult and dangerous circumstances.   That unswerving devotion to a cause greater that one’s own comfort or even survival is a challenge to all of us who count ourselves as Christians: are we willing to suffer, as Paul did, for the faith, and for the sake of others who may come after us?

 

The Bible in a Year – 28 November

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

2 November. Philippians 

I wrote yesterday how Paul used the language of cosmology (of his day) to try to explain just how great Jesus Christ is – not only for humanity but for the whole creation.  In his letter to the Philippians Paul then inverts this concept by showing how truly humble Jesus was when limited by a human body:

 “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (2:5-8)

Paul goes on to explain how this “emptying” that Jesus undertook, discarding anything of his divinity that would make him feel superior to other people while retaining the power to work miracles for the benefit of others, led to his being “exalted” or made more important in the cosmic scheme than anyone or anything else.

He also uses it to challenge his Christian readers to show humility, holiness and innocence in their own lives as Jesus did in his, and to be willing like him to be sacrifices if necessary for the greater cause of the Gospel.  Such challenges do not come easily, and I will not pretend I live up to them myself.   These verses, with their challenge to act as though dead in order to be truly alive, have been a frequent challenge to me throughout my Christian life:

“I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (3:10-11)

The Bible in a Year – 12 November

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

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 – 14 September

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

14 September. 1 Chronicles chapter 6

This chapter focuses solely on the descendants of Levi, who were the temple priests and servants. Levi was great-grandfather to, among others, the three siblings Aaron, Moses and Miriam, whose exploits make up much of the book of Exodus.

Unlike the genealogies of other tribes, this chapter also lists the various towns and villages “and their pasture lands” which were to belong to the Levites.  Why the pasture lands? Because the sacrificial system meant that large numbers of cattle and sheep were needed, and it would be the duty of those Levites who were not required for service in the Temple itself to do the necessary farming.

There is also a particular mention of those families who “ministered with song before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, until Solomon had built the house of the Lord in Jerusalem; and they performed their service in due order” (6:32). Along with sacrifice, the Tabernacle/Temple required songs of praise to be sung.    This twin emphasis on sacrifice and praise was to be at the heart of Jewish life for centuries.

The sacrifices have gone, but the praise continues, and the two are conflated; Hebrews 13:15 refers to Christians “offering a sacrifice of praise”.  Taking time to worship God, and to let him develop in us spiritual gifts (words of prayer or prophecy, musical talent, or indeed the visual arts) in doing so is a kind of sacrifice or our self-interest, but one that reaps great rewards.

The Bible in a Year – 4 September

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

Please excuse the delay in publishing the notes for the end of Daniel and all of Ezra, with only brief comments, as I was on holiday for a week and only making short notes to be typed up later.

4 September. Ezra chapters 3-5

The first thing the Jews did on returning to Jerusalem was to build an altar (in the open air, presumably) on which to make sacrifice.  While the idea of sacrificing animals has virtually disappeared from world religions today, the ideas remain that it is important to give thanks to God for the good things that happen to us, and that having a place in which to conduct worship according to whatever we may consider to be appropriate rites is important to a religious community. The location of our worship, and our attitude in conducting it, are always more important than the building (if any).

In chapter 4, the opponents of the rebuilding of the Temple offered to help but it was refused. Not all ‘help’ is welcome, and it is difficult to know from this one-sided account whether the offer of help was a genuine attempt to build bridges, or an attempt to infiltrate a organisation.  Probably the latter, as their letter to Artaxerxes is disingenuous, using the fear of difference and past examples as a way of stirring up present hatred.  Only with a new king (Darius) did the Jews resume the attempt to rebuild the Temple, with an appeal to Cyrus’s previous permission.  Presumably they had feared that Artaxerxes would not take note of what Cyrus had said and done, or even regarded it as a reason to persecute them all over again.